Friendships often lead to unpredictable twists and turns but one has brought 18 English youngsters to Augusta for a soccer tournament.
The bond between Peter Foley and Colin Clarke was forged when both played professionally for the Oxford (England) United in the late 1970s. Today, the pair is sharing their respective knowledge as youth coaches in Augusta.
Foley, the coach of the Highfield (England) boys under-11 soccer team, crossed the Atlantic Ocean so his Oxford-based squad could compete in the 1999 Augusta Arsenal Spring Shootout this weekend. Highfield is the first foreign team in the tournament's 14-year history. Clarke is the coaching coordinator for the Augusta Arsenal Gunners.
"We want them to have the experience of a lifetime," Foley said. "We aim to be competitive and we hope to win."
Highfield is one of 180 youth soccer teams to participate in this year's tournament. Foley and Clarke's relationship inspired the 8 1/2 -hour plane ride to play in the two-weekend tournament. Play started last weekend and resumes Saturday at 8 a.m. on Barton Field at Fort Gordon.
"I've been over three times to help Colin with soccer camps," said Foley, who is the United's all-time leading goal scorer. "After seeing the complex last year and meeting the people associated with the club, I knew they'd (kids) be well looked after."
Clarke, who is in his seventh year in Augusta, has seen the tournament grow from 12 teams to nearly 200 during his tenure with the Arsenal. He said getting teams from outside the U.S. has always intrigued him.
"My plan from the minute I came in was to get the tournament recognized at the international level," Clarke said.
Organizers said the tournament had a $3.5 million economic impact on the area last year and expect it to rise to $3.8 million this year. Despite the eagerness of Foley and Clarke to have Highfield participate, the trip was in jeopardy when a leading sponsor pulled out at the last minute.
Assistant manager John Pripa was able to round up enough sponsors to make the trip possible, however. By landing sponsorships from businesses in Oxford, the team was able to raise approximately $10,000. Foley's son, Tom, was anxious to participate in such a large tournament. Highfield has never ventured out of England to play.
"It's exciting," the 10-year-old striker said. "It's so big."
Foley, Clarke and Pripa said the media exposure generated in Oxford gave the team the financial push it needed. Clarke hopes the interest generated by Highfield's participation will entice other countries to send representatives.
For most of the young players, a chance to play outside of their local club league is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"A lot of the kids don't ever get a chance to go overseas," said team manager Richard Jakeman. "They'll love it. They feel like celebrities."