Vaagn Babayan, co-captain of the Glendale High boys’ soccer team, doesn’t bat an eye when opponents and their fans make fun of him and some of his teammates.
The recollection of an incident at the Burroughs tournament earlier this season, when an overweight man ran down the sidelines making guttural noises meant to mock the Armenian language, is met with a shrug.
“Everywhere we go, someone says something,” said Babayan, who is one of about a dozen Glendale players who communicate in Armenian during matches.
“Yesterday, we played Muir and they made fun of us too,” Babayan said. “We just look at it as motivation. I tell the guys to put [the ball] in the net and then all that talk, it’s over once we win.”
And so they do. Glendale is 11-5-1, 2-2-1 in Pacific League play, and appears headed for its fifth playoff berth in Coach Loi Phan’s six seasons.
Phan’s record is 65-35-17, and his teams have never finished lower than in a tie for third place.
Such success in the face of ridicule might seem remarkable, but Glendale players are used to facing boorish behavior. And they have overcome it in their own ranks.
When Phan, 29, took over the program, he inherited an explosive ethnic combination.
“The first few years there were a lot of battles,” he said. “Our best games were team scrimmages--the Armenians against the Hispanics. Those guys would kill each other, and it wasn’t good-natured.”
Players fought in school and were suspended. Players lost their tempers during matches and were ejected. Players tolerated their teammates, but remained divided along ethnic lines.
“One year, I had to play a Hispanic defender, midfielder and forward all on the same side,” Phan said. “Guys wouldn’t pass the ball to someone who wasn’t like them.”
From the outside, the program seemed successful. Glendale, with a roster of skilled and intense players, made the playoffs almost every year. But the Dynamiters weren’t utilizing all of their considerable talent. Infighting and indifference kept the squad dangling precariously close to a damaging fall.
Matches and league titles were lost because Phan benched starters for disciplinary reasons.
Through it all, the coach, a former Glendale football player, held firm. He stressed that walking away from a fight is the right thing to do and that a person’s race doesn’t determine whether the ball is passed to them.
“I tell them, ‘I don’t care if you’re martians, you’re playing for Glendale and if you lose, everybody loses,’ ” Phan said. “I think we’re starting to understand that now.”
And it shows.
This season, teammates shared the blame equally when Glendale lost three of its first five matches while breaking in a new goalkeeper. And the team’s tolerance in the face of racist behavior at the Burroughs tournament earned it the sportsmanship award.
“I thought they showed a lot of class by ignoring the inappropriate things that were said,” said Mike Kodama, Burroughs’ longtime coach.
“That’s due to Loi, because he breaks them out of the I’m-me-and-they’re-them mold. Glendale will get into it with anyone on the field, but when Loi talks to them they straighten right up because they know he’s all business.”
The consistency of Phan’s no-nonsense approach has finally bred practices that are punctuated with good-natured barbs. Players even teach each other tactical phrases in languages other than their own.
“When you finally see the results of what you’ve been working for all these years, it makes your whole day.” Phan said.
Babayan and midfielder Armen Akhverdyan, the team’s other co-captain, say that bridges have been built within their team.
“At school, [students] are with their group, their race,” Babayan said. “But here on the field, it’s a different story.”
Teammates stick up for each other.
“When people make fun of our guys, it bugs me because it’s racist,” goalkeeper David Aguilar said. "[We’re] just people who want to play soccer.”