Playing just for kicks


In soccer-wild Howard County, leagues for men are thriving


Amir Zinalabedini plays sweeper for the Internationals in the Howard County Recreation and Parks' Sunday Men's Division 2 soccer league. The 47-year-old Iranian native jokingly says he might be the league's oldest player, but the Columbia resident clearly hasn't lost his passion for the game.

His voice can be heard all over the field, directing traffic, giving encouragement, questioning the referees. When his team just missed scoring a goal in Sunday's game against FC Atlantic, Zinalabedini crouched down on his knees and banged both hands on the ground in frustration.

When the Internationals scored the final goal of their 2-0 victory, he came racing from the back at full speed to hug and congratulate the goal-scorer.

"I just [do it] to hang out with the guys who love to play soccer," Zinalabedini said. "That's all it is."

Soccer is very popular in Howard County. For men, the Department of Recreation and Parks runs several adult leagues each season. This fall, there are Division 1 and Division 2 leagues, which take place Friday nights. On Sundays, Division 1, 2 and 3 leagues play at different parks.

Players can compete in leagues on both nights, and many often do. Several have no problem playing late on Friday night after work, and then coming back to play in the Sunday leagues. It is low-key, as the players coach themselves, take care of substitutions, starting lineups and all those details.

Some wives and girlfriends and children will sit on the sidelines watching the game. But the game that's played is just that - a game. The players yell things out from time to time, but it is clearly a group of people just enjoying their sport.

Marketing and sports coordinator Janell Coffman said about 545 players are in the leagues this fall, playing on 34 teams. Softball is the only sport that draws more interest this season.

Coffman said the department will try to capitalize on the ever-growing popularity of soccer with a new men's league this winter. Registration begins next month, and she is optimistic about getting enough players.

The question is: Will the department be able to find enough people who won't mind playing soccer in football weather? In Howard County, that might not be a problem.

"I'm hopeful that there are few extreme teams out there who don't mind playing outside," Coffman said.

The outdoor leagues have a mix of players, many from Howard County, others from elsewhere who simply use this as a way to keep playing their favorite sport.

Quinntin Guidry is one of those who doesn't mind making a drive to play in the league. He is on FC Atlantic and makes the 20- to 30-minute drive regularly to help his team and keep playing soccer. Guidry played at Patapsco High in Baltimore County; he loves the sport and wants to keep finding his way on to the field. He has played in this league about five years and plans to continue because the games and fields are very good.

"Baltimore doesn't have nice fields like Howard County does," Guidry said while waiting to go into last Sunday's game. "Howard County offers a lot for people who want to play competitive soccer. It's very, very popular out there."

Zinalabedini is one of the Howard County people who won't stop any time soon. He has played in the league since 1992 and comes out every Sunday during the season.

His passion for the game is easy to see during contests. He knows how to mix pushing teammates with having fun. At the end of the first half of Sunday's game, Zinalabedini gently chided one of the officials for blowing his whistle three times, something most people recognize as the signal for ending the half.

Most of the players began to walk toward the bench. But the official then said that he was blowing the whistle for something else. Zinalabedini began yelling in his inimitable voice that the official shouldn't blow the whistle that way.

When the game ended, Zinalabedini found his way to the official, whom he has known for a while, to tease him about the mix-up. The official explained it, and both men ended up laughing.

"I still just love soccer," Zinalabedini said with a smile. "Because I'm the oldest guy, they kind of listen to me, that's what it is. It's fun, that's for sure, and I wouldn't miss it for all the money in the world."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.