THE LIONS IN HARLEM: A LOOK INTO FC HARLEM W/ CHARCOAL PITCH FC

Harlem World is in the house, and this time it isn’t for how to fly and dapper someone from the neighborhood is, but instead, it’s because of its new renaissance that begins with the global sport of football. 

If you haven’t heard, there has been a movement in the neighborhood that is dedicated to using the game of soccer to provide positive impact and solutions for youth in the inner city. That movement is called F.C Harlem, led by Irv Smalls.

Irv serves as the Executive Director of the F.C Harlem L.I.O.N.S (Leaders In Our Neighborhoods), but his roots didn’t start with the sport and neither did his love for it. Irv grew up in Hershey, PA with his family where the cultural differences were undeniable. Irv grew up very active as he played various sports including soccer, baseball, and tennis, but those never really stuck out as much as the game of American football. 

“I played soccer for a little bit, it didn’t register for me, I picked it up as just something that you do instead of seeing it as something you do long term”

As he believed to have found his athletic niche, he stuck with American football throughout high school and that led him to play at the collegiate level for Penn State, a school well-known for its rich winning history and the players that the program produced that went pro.  

Smalls didn’t go on to the NFL though, instead he continued on with his education as a law student at Dickinson Law School. He then served as a victim court advocate in South Philly where a glimpse of what he would be advocating for today, was presented to him through an encounter with a student.

“And I remember I met this one brother who, you know, ran into a little altercation with some other kids at school, but like, he saw my Penn state ring and he wanted to play football. And so I just turned, we just had a  good conversation and just kind of saw the power of sports or just giving engagement today to these guys and try to inspire them to be better “

Smalls truly saw the power that sports can play so much so that he decided to start working on the business side of sports and understand what that business could do for a community. 

As he searched for jobs, he found an opening with at the time, a very young Major League Soccer (MLS) in New York. 

“I remember I saw there was a position in the legal department at Major League Soccer, and I mean it’s interesting because I still remember to this day my response, I was like, Oh my gosh, I don’t like soccer at all” 

He started working in the legal department by getting involved with contracts for players like Freddie Adu and other projects, which help him become a converted football fan. It was the 2002 World Cup that made it all make sense for him. It just happened to be a game where people that look like him were presented a platform and in that moment he realized how the sport he once didn’t care for much, could connect to his passion of working with inner city youth. 

“I was thinking about it through the lens of, you know, my passion obviously is working with inner-city kids, giving more opportunities to black and brown youth, empowering them. And I said you know what? Sports is such a powerful skill and I think this sport right here, it looks more like life than any other sport.”

The once Penn State American Football player knew that this was a goal he would have to take a shot at in order to bring forth change. As time went on Irv made contact with Ruston Harris who was running Harlem Youth Soccer, whose offices were right next door to MLS, where he started getting involved.

“I started volunteering, leveraging some of the relationships that I had at Major League Soccer, you know, for the community, for the program. And then there was a point where we were kind of thinking about, what’s the next step for it? “

Irv realized that there was a need for a promising program that would provide opportunities to the youth in Harlem for educational and professional development. After a little bit of time and a lot of research, he decided to dedicate all of his efforts to Harlem and its youth and leave MLS.

It was time for him to apply all that he had learned to his dream and connect the dots. The task was about bringing the global game to Harlem and gain both black and brown fans. The question wass how do you do that in a place where the rich culture is heavily rooted in other things?

Fast forward to the present day in the neighborhood that houses FC Harlem and that wouldn’t be the first question that comes to mind. The club has built a reputation for developing talent and providing opportunities to black and brown student-athletes. It doesn’t just stop there though, the FC Harlem Lions have formed a very strong partnership with Chelsea F.C which has also led to a featured collaboration for a white kit with Nike that is flawless. 

“And like these kids are important to me. So my approach always has been, I want the best. I don’t want hand me downs. I don’t want your shoes, I want brand new shoes. I want the nicest uniforms.I want the biggest clubs. And yeah, I’ve had a lot of people craning that can look at me like who do you think you are? Somebody that knows my value and knows my community’s value and know-how you will potentially benefit down the road. So you need to put more in. You know what I mean?”  

Exciting things are happening through FC Harlem and the stats also show how amazing the sport has been, so far 97% of all high school participants graduated, 80% of those graduates have gone to college, and since the year 2006 FC Harlem has served more than 7,000 youth across all programs, and to pay it forward to their community, all the players dedicate a minimum of 25 hours of volunteer service annually.

This is an organization truly instilling value back into the community and its people, so much so that investing in these youth isn’t a fairytale, if you don’t believe it, ask former FC Harlem Player Joseph Koroma.

Koroma now a sophomore at Manhattan College and is a Harlem native with direct roots from Sierra Leone. He has been part of FC Harlem since he was 8 years old and has developed and grown as a player and member of his community. Joseph who is now getting closer to his pro football dreams has truly shown a path of constant progression. The Harlem native was being recruited by top academies across the country, which led him to attend US Soccer Developmental Academy where he exceeded 30 goals in 40 matches and was invited into the NYCFC academy after just two seasons.

In the time spent at FC Harlem Joseph has learned about what it takes, especially when you don’t come from a background where a quick phone call to a coach lands you a spot on the roster without a trial. He has been a prime example of what dedication and also his time spent volunteering in his community can provide. He is part of something bigger than himself and that opportunity to represent his neighborhood and his people provides a huge source of motivation.

Harlem is a neighborhood full of culture, history, heritage, and known for the great people who have cultivated the great elements that have now been passed down to be nurtured.

When thinking about the history of Harlem, a few words that you can attach to it are renaissance, innovation, and hustle. Many have been drawn by the creativity and energy of this neighborhood. It continues to birth ideas, ways of life, and now solutions through sport.

“If you commit when you work in our community, that’s how your brand grows. It doesn’t grow just because you said this is who you are. So part of it was constantly like, you know what? I’m a person who’s always believed in giving youth the best that you can give them.” 

So when Irv Smalls speaks about the vision of expanding the FC Harlem blueprint from coast to coast, understand that the purpose is unique, but not unfamiliar to many inner-city youth across the country who have been left behind due to a pay to play system that steers away the love for a global sport that could change multiple lives. 

The challenge isn’t getting in touch with football legends like David Beckham or Thierry Henry, to come and get involved and inspire the youth, it is instead breaking the barriers and myths around the beautiful game that has afforded many with the opportunities to learn, travel, and give back. However, FC Harlem provides opportunities and proof of being the solution to it all, because if a place like Harlem where history runs rampant from block to block can embrace the game of football, then the world should prepare to receive newborn legends from the Black Mecca to rule the pitch and be LI.O.N.s in there own neighborhoods.

PATTA’S PITCH FOR CULTURE

As a black man born and raised in Italy, my life, identity, culture, and influence were something I had to fully commit myself to. Being raised by Ghanaian parents and knowing my origins kept me grounded though. Most of the influence I got from outside of my home was from stars on the pitch that looked like me. Players like George Weah, Marcel Desailly, Edgar Davids, Stephen Appiah, and Lilly Thuram just to name a few. The rest of my inspiration flowed through music and what I considered stylish as an adolescent. All these helped me connect and move in confidence in a place where people of my background had to make things happen without handouts. Some made it happen with a ball that afforded them a platform highlighting their culture, while others like the Sabajo brothers Edson & Tim — leaders of the Patta streetwear brand — gradually connected the dots and grew from success to success until they reached where they are today. After interviewing Edson & Tim, there was so much to share that I think will connect dots for people to see the game of soccer, hip hop, and culture itself as a greater gift than what it is portrayed to be in the past.

If you’ve never made the connection between football and streetwear culture or thought about hip hop having an influence on the global sport you have been missing out on some highlights. No worries though, the experience isn’t a limited edition sneaker, there is more room to be filled.  This movement has been documented in the form of threads that tell stories through collaborations by your favorite brands, crafted by the culture mavens at Patta.

Patta—the Dutch street brand created by Edson Sabajo and Guillaume ‘Gee’ Schmidt, is more than what meets the eye. The brand has been able to do something that not many can. They have nurtured and remained true to their roots and foundation while simultaneously being leaders of creative innovation in streetwear culture.

What makes Patta so special is the stories that live within their creations. This value they stand on pays homage to their roots of Surinam (the country in South America where their parents migrated from), life experiences from street football, music, and sneakers. It doesn’t just end there though. Patta thrives as a story of neighborhood heroes claiming their territory and living what they considered cool in their neck of the woods. Edson and his brother Tim Sabajo, represent what it means to be trendsetters and the notion that holding your own in a world where proving yourself gives you a pass in your neighborhood. Sounds pretty familiar right?

In America, you’ll find a basketball court close to every neighborhood where legends were made. But none compare to the Mecca aka Rucker Park where you can’t step foot on the court to compete unless you got game or a superb sense of style. Well—imagine that same type of culture and pressure, but in Europe. The sport being football and the game being played by people who don’t all look like you—yet coming from the same struggle as immigrants. There was too much happening in their world to sit still. Edson and his brother Tim grew up in Holland as Ajax fans and were heavily involved in soccer, but not just friendly matches. Instead, they were entrenched in street football where you would play against some of the most skilled, toughest, and flashiest players.

“So you play outside and every hood, every block has like a basketball court, but it’s a football court and you come together and we all play football. Then you went from one court to another court to play the other guys. So you know each other, but then you see each other on the pitch. So on the field you will see each other and then you look at each other like what do you wear.”

The top performers became mavericks and mostly built their reputation on the pitch by being top players, which then transcended into the streets. There was no love for the ones who could not hold their own in the game of soccer or lacked style while playing it. The Sabajo brothers quickly figured something out about getting a rep and the culture they loved so much. So they took advantage of it by meshing their love for the game with music and making sure that they stayed fresh in the latest gear.

“Sometimes you end up seeing guys you see in the club, but you also know them from the pitch would say oh, he is nice with the ball. He was a nice football player. He was nice with that. Plus he had style, you know, that’s how you connect.“

The hunger and grind are just different. The Sabajo brothers had to be playing for something bigger than themselves. Being raised black in Europe is already an experience of its own, but adding the pressure of carrying the torch and leaving a mark is a whole different ball game. Imagine living in the Netherlands, facing the challenges that come with being black and trying to craft and lead a culture. The challenges they might have faced had to have been tougher than what others deal with today, but backing down was never an option.

I remember many challenges faced as a black child growing up in Italy. Though happy moments outlive the bad moments, I was always reminded that I was black. I recall one day after playing outside with friends, most likely soccer, I decided to go to the store and buy a snack. As I stood there, a child about my age walked up to me staring and then rubbed her hand on my arm and looked down at her hand to see if my skin rubbed off. I walked out of the store that day realizing how different I was. Yet the only place where I felt like I belonged or wasn’t being judged was on the pitch, where all worries left my mind and my dreams along with friendships came alive.

The brothers credit street football as the inspiration for their fashion while admiring some of the guys in their neighborhood. Some who would construct and customize their own shoes or even rock fresh jerseys. But that fashion sense was only a part of their overall style. Hip hop sounds from the likes of Public Enemy to Whodini blasted through their boomboxes, affording them the opportunity to connect with people from other crews. Hip hop sounds connected their community as one and empowered the young people to represent where they were from. The brothers who have always identified with black culture saw the movement that took place in the United States. They admired it, studied it, mastered it, and eventually made it their own.

Edson and Tim capitalized on the opportunity to craft their brand after the culture they had been part of by creating their own soccer jersey repping their home team Ajax in collaboration with Umbro. The Patta brand wasn’t just born when the brothers were flying abroad to America or Japan to buy exclusive sneakers to resell in Amsterdam. It instead came to life when they decided to involve people in their community who they knew and admired and who understood their vision. A vision bridging the gap for people who want to relive their prime, while connecting with the present culture of streetwear.   

We now are in present day where Patta is a well-respected streetwear brand having collaborated with brands like Nike, ASICS, adidas, Converse, and Reebok. The future of connecting football, hip hop, and streetwear is in good hands if you leave it up to Patta. They’ve been able to connect the dots, while educating all of us on why their designs mean so much. Having a similar background as me, they have personally inspired me to use my experiences, challenges, culture, and dreams to share stories that empower communities and its people. So if you’ve never understood the correlation between the sport of soccer, hip hop and style—Patta is a great place to start.