Celebrating the city and soccer

International Festival's exotic foods, music and sights include touch of World Cup fervor

August 06, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN REPORTER

On weekdays, Emmanuel Tabi is a caring licensed nurse practitioner. But yesterday, during an afternoon soccer match, he violently slid into an opponent, folding him to the ground and releasing a plume of dust from the burnt grass.

Baltimore's annual International Festival includes a World Cup-style soccer tournament in its mix of reggae, blues, pad Thai, jerk chicken, martial arts demonstrations and Ms. Ida the Yodeling Lady. The event's theme is "Celebrating One Baltimore." But you wouldn't know that by watching the soccer field.

Tabi's teammates from Cameroon clipped, sprinted and all but head-butted their way past challengers on the baseball fields of Polytechnic Institute/Western High School.

A sidelined opponent slammed down his water bottle in frustration as Cameroon scored - again - and, after a penalty kick pinged off the goal post, most of the opponent's blue-and-white-clad supporters groaned.

"Cameroon is a soccer nation," said Tabi, 34, of Beltsville, captain of the Maryland-based Spartans Football Club, which is sponsored by the Savoy Palms Hotel in Limbe, a city in southwest Cameroon. "Did you know that we are the defending champions?"

All the players knew. But lest anyone think this event was all about soccer, visitors walking by the food booths could smell curry-coated chicken steaming on the grill, the pepper of Italian sausage under warmers and just a hint of ocean from the crabs.

At one stage, a team of Elkridge-based martial arts students, ages toddler to adult, performed a choreographed, Jackie Chan-esque routine to techno music. Two girls high-kicked and then buckled the knees of two boys - one included splits in her routine, the other swung a thin rod that's used as a weapon.

Then, there was the music - first from Charles "Big Daddy" Stallings, who pointed out to listeners sitting in folding chairs and under umbrellas that they all needed a copy of his album, and its namesake, One Night Lover.

During the next set, as the Unity Reggae Band performed "One Love," 3-year-old Josiah Stone tugged on his mom's hand and said, "Mommy, that's Bob Marley."

"He loves music," his mother, Samara Stone of Towson, said. "It's wonderful to have something like this for the international population. It's important to expose your children to this at an early age."

Back at the action, the soccer teams set up camps around the two fields, the boundaries of which had been spray-painted onto the baseball fields. Each team hung its flag from tent canopies.

The South Koreans slathered on sunscreen and stretched under a large white- and red-striped tent. Their opponents, the Nigerians, were squeezed into much smaller quarters, chatting and laughing among each other in Ibo and Yoruba, two native languages.

"You're able to meet other people from different cultures and understand what they eat and have fun," said Sam Osagie, a forward for the mostly Nigerian Stores Internationale Football Club.

A few yards from Osagie's tent, five teenage girls from Ethiopia sat on a bench behind the goal. They thought the game was between Ecuador and Ethiopia and tied at 0-0, but the "Black Lions" actually were down 2-0 and playing El Salvador.

Sergut Admasu, 18, explained why she attended the festival despite her lack of attention to the game.

"It reminds me of my home country," said Admasu, who left Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, when she was 11. In the United States, "You don't see people playing soccer this often."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

The International Festival continues from noon to 9:30 p.m. today.

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