At 14, Samuel John discovered what others around the world had grown up with: a passion for soccer.
After moving from Basel, Switzerland, to Gainesville at 9, John said he found himself in a city more concerned with American football and less with putting young soccer players in the spotlight.
John, now 20, took his first step toward building the men’s soccer culture he hoped Gainesville would embrace. On Aug. 19, he founded the Forest Park Rangers by registering the team with the Gainesville Regional Soccer League.
“Every now and then I would look at players like myself and think, ‘Man, imagine how good this guy would be if he were scouted and received professional training,’” he said. “It always dawned on me how, given proper training, anyone could achieve the caliber of a professional footballer.”
With $3,000 in contributions, from his parents, John hopes to climb from “C League” to “A League,” building sponsors and support. His goal is to make the Rangers the first professional, independent team in the city.
“We want the youth of Gainesville to have access to a professional club that will foster talent and provide the high level opportunities that people like me were denied before,” John said. “No one deserves to be overlooked.”
The 22 Rangers, ages 17 to 30, and reserves on the roster found their way to Gainesville from places as diverse as Kuwait and Venezuela.
Despite their differences, they share soccer.
Joel Castillo, a third-year Santa Fe College student from Ecuador, said soccer has always been a part of his life. He joined the Rangers because he agreed with John’s passion and ambition.
“It’s just something I feel like a lot of us are born with,” Castillo said.
But Castillo, 24, said his dream of playing on a professional level feel out of reach.
“We all know we are aging and that our time to become professionals is extremely short,” John said. “However, even if we were to leave Gainesville to play in a club in Europe, we would not abandon this project.”
Part of the problem for older players, John said, is the lack of opportunity available at the collegiate level at the University of Florida. Though UF has a women’s soccer team, the men’s team is considered a club, meaning it doesn’t compete nationally.
Chip Howard, UF’s executive associate athletics director for internal affairs, said the university has never had a men’s soccer team. Because of Title IX – a federal civil rights law prohibiting sex discrimination in education — men’s soccer would mean men’s athletics at UF would outnumber women’s, which is prohibited under the law.
UF isn’t trying to exclude or discourage young men from playing, Howard said.
Because the Gainesville league is co-ed, all teams are required to play at least three female players of 11 on the field.
Now, the Rangers have three female players. John hopes to form the Forest Park Lady Rangers eventually, but for now, the rule is “immoral and sexist,” he said.
“Let’s face it,” John said. “When you are defending against a female player, an overweight player or an elderly player, you just don’t go as hard against them as you would against a player of professional caliber.”
While looking for future Rangers, John said he found a few players who disagreed with the way the Gainesville league is run and who refused to play.
“It is a shame that they sit at home and waste their talents because of a lack of serious competition,” he said.
Paul Miller, a registered agent with the Gainesville Regional Soccer League, said a league strictly for men was suggested several seasons ago, but team captains rejected the idea, which he said indicated a desire to welcome competition from both sexes.
“I have suggested to Samuel that he gain some experience with the league before he criticizes it for something it does not pretend to be,” Miller said in an email. “Perhaps he will discover the unique asset that the league brings to approximately 600 players in our community — men and women of a variety of backgrounds, ages and nationalities who all enjoy an organized soccer playing opportunity.”
Even in the wake of what the team sees as unfair rules and guidelines, the Rangers have seen success so far.
The Rangers is second in the “C League” with one loss out of six games.
Mathiena John, Samuel John’s mother, said she believes the team will succeed.
“We feel that Sam’s dreams and ambitions are genuine and that his livelihood depends on the pursuit of those dreams,” she said. “We have always supported Samuel in his endeavors and we will always continue to do so.”