The only constant for pro soccer players is change. There are hundreds of soccer leagues across the world, and players move from country to country and league to league year in and year out. The result is teams with deep cultural and linguistic diversity who nevertheless need to connect quickly if they want to make the most of their seasons.
In 2019, Minnesota United’s squad saw 14 different countries represented and six languages spoken in the locker room. Each player in that locker room had to adapt, and all of them have their roles to play in contributing to the character of the team.
The question, then, is how does a player do all that while making a new place feel like home?
Vito Mannone was born in Lombardy, Italy, but his professional career began with Arsenal in the Premier League. For the next 13 years, he wore a few different kits across England, learning along the way how to adapt and settle in. In February of this year, Mannone added a third country to his resume and came to the United States to don the Black and Blue. Immediately, he headed to Orlando to join the squad for their second preseason trip.
Although Mannone was new to the club, he instantly became a welcoming source of comfort, both to new players and veterans. His affability and calming presence quickly made others feel comfortable and at home — especially his new roommate and fellow newcomer to the U.S., Jan Gregus.
“That’s how we connected straight away,” said Mannone. “We are both a bit crazy. Our preparation for every game is special. We connected with the music, with the movies. The first five games away, we watched the Queen movie [Bohemian Rhapsody] about seven times, I think, together. Because we were winning, and we kept winning, and we said, tradition is tradition. That’s how it started.”
From that point on, the two shared a room whenever the team was on the road and when they weren’t, they stayed in the same hotel in Minneapolis as they worked on finding their own places in the Twin Cities. They carpooled to and from training and ate their way through the city one post-training meal at a time.
Their group of two quickly added a third: Romain Metanire.
“The first day, I had a special dinner with Romain [Metanire],” said Mannone. “He didn’t speak, probably, three consecutive words in English. It was an interesting, interesting dinner. From there, I started to teach him a little bit and from there, he improved every day and now he’s at a good level.”
Training days began with learning a few new words and laughing about whatever episode of Friends was brought up and then quoted verbatim. Road games meant trying whatever Italian restaurant was close to the hotel under the guidance of Mannone.
The three created an experience in their new home through the relationship they built and the good feelings they fed. Mannone and Gregus brought the language to Metanire, and shared how to adapt to the new culture and lifestyle in America. The three of them absorbed it all together.
“There’s nothing better than to laugh with your friends,” said Gregus. “To tell each other stories of every day, from your lives. To share stories, it’s quite fun. It’s quite a fun experience.”
While the world’s game might be unimaginably big, it’s the relationships the players build that make it small. It’s exploring the new journey they’re on with others who have been in their shoes before, and might even currently be wearing the same pair.
The ways you learn about your new home are exactly what makes it feel like home.
“When I went to Minneapolis, I met Vito [Mannone] first,” said Metanire — in English. “When we talk, we say to him, I don’t speak English. He said, okay, you can try it. Vito was the first guy to help me speak English. Very cool for me. And the second guy I met was Jan. And, I don’t know, we have – together – a good feeling. So, now we are all the time together. Every time we come in the morning, we talk about a funny story and that’s when you start the day in a good mood.”