For nine days, the Central Pasco United Soccer Association Under 14 Premier Boys Team was half a world away.
From March 26 to April 9, 15 players and three coaches affiliated with Ejje Soccer Academy lived, and played, like an international squad in Madrid, Spain, even being treated like soccer superstars.
“They've never done anything like this before or even been out of the country,” said one of the coaches, Eddy Costa, who is also the Wiregrass Ranch High girls soccer coach. “We're trying to expose the kids to more soccer that happens around the world.”
To do that, the team spent time, not only exploring Madrid, but also getting five training sessions with the Real Madrid training staff at the team's complex. They were allowed to use all facilities from the fields to locker rooms, and they were given an exclusive tour of Real Madrid's Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, the team's stadium that seats 85,454.
The club, coached by Eddie Oyakhilome, was also bussed like a professional squad and played three games against Real Madrid youth teams at the Spanish National Team's facilities.
“Everything was very organized,” Costa said. “We played those teams and they were friendly and acceptive of us being over there and there wasn't any fighting or hard feelings on the field or afterward.”
CPUSA lost the first two games, then tied the third 2-2. Yet the biggest highlight was touring the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, from being taken through the seats and trophy and history rooms, to seeing the lockers of such players as Cristiano Ronaldo and KaKa and then being taken out of the tunnel onto the field.
“That (stadium) and country is pretty amazing,” Costa said. “You should've seen the looks on their faces.”
Even though it was a soccer-oriented trip, the coaches and organization warned, and wanted, the players to experience a culture shock of being in a busy European metropolis. From the food, language, people, time change and customs, it was an experience of a lifetime.
“We wanted them to absorb and enjoy the culture and realize the food is different, that, say, for breakfast, you weren't going to get bacon and eggs — it's going to be different,” Costa said. “And it was. It was a shock to them at first, but they grew to understand and accept it, and because of that, we hope to keep doing trips like this in the future.”
Correspondent Mike Camunas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MikeCamunas