If you want to be in the know, don’t call them “games.” Every four years, while the matches of the World Cup captivate soccer devotees around the globe, most American sports fans are still talking about the NFL draft. But Tony Sanneh, the Twin Cities’ most famous soccer star, is doing his best to change that.
Sanneh, who grew up on St. Paul’s East Side, made millions of dollars as a pro player. He played every minute of the World Cup for the U.S. national team in 2002, leading them to the quarterfinals; he played six years in Europe; and he even bent it with Beckham during a season with the L.A. Galaxy. Nowadays he uses the sport to help at-risk kids. This summer, about 4,000 Twin Cities kids will learn important life lessons as they learn the game at camps run by the Sanneh Foundation.
How did a St. Paul kid wind up playing soccer in the 1980s? I went to visit my dad’s family in the Gambia in West Africa when I was 6. I saw it there. Then I came back here and I started playing when I was 9 years old at the local park and rec.
These days lots of 8-year-olds play year-round. The pressure is on. Parents are pushing their kids to be a star, instead of wanting their kids to have a good experience. My mom made me go to yoga camp. She said, “You can play, but you have to go to yoga camp.” This was in 1980.
But that pressure to succeed is hard to resist. Now kids are hiring physical trainers and working on their core. If you’re not spending time on the field, it doesn’t matter how strong you are. It’s like working on poetry without learning the ABCs. You’d be better off just learning the ABCs. They go right to the poetry.
It’s easy for you to say this because you made it. Exactly. But there’s a club in Barcelona that says, “Our goal is to build the best soccer players in the world, but we know there’s no way to do that, so our real goal is to build the best people.” Teach them the fundamentals, teach respect and discipline—they’re going to find their own drives and do it.
When did you know you were serious? My best friend and I used to get done with summer school, go to a soccer store on the corner, and play knee soccer for three hours. We’d eat lunch in 10 minutes so we could change for gym class and go work on headers. My best friend was Manny Lagos, who went on to play on the U.S. Olympic team [and now coaches for Minnesota United FC]. I tell parents if they want their kids to be a star, get their kid a best friend who’s a future Olympian.
Sanneh played soccer at St. Paul Academy before he went pro. A team he played for in Germany ha a $50 million budget.
Your mom raised you. My parents got divorced when I was 11 or 12. She was on her own. My mom was a social worker for Ramsey County for 35 years; she was in child protection. Pretty rough gig.
Your career was intense, too. I was an all-American soccer player at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and played in the first MLS (Major League Soccer) finals for Washington, D.C. Then I played in Berlin for three years, Nuremberg for three years. I wanted to come home. I came out of retirement to play with David Beckham.
What was that like? It was like you’d imagine, like playing with Michael Jordan. He had different exits, had an entourage. He was a great guy, had kids like any other kids.
Why don’t we see the huge crowds here for soccer? Football is the only sport that gets 60,000-plus, but there’s only eight home games. We do about the same as hockey; hockey averages 18,000. Americans played soccer in football stadiums, so it looked bad. Now they’re building 25,000-seat soccer stadiums.
There’s a perception that soccer is boring—there’s not enough scoring. What if every touchdown was worth one point? Every game would be 3–2.
Brilliant! Soccer goals should be worth 25 points! [Laughs.]
Your foundation has been a quick rise since 2003. I had a $30,000 budget. Now I have a $1.4 million budget. We’ll do 4,000 kids in 40 free summer camps around the cities. It’s different kinds of kids that go: black kids, white kids, Hispanic kids, Hmong kids, rich kids, poor kids.
Why do you do this? Why not go coach pro soccer? I already lived out of a suitcase for 17 years. If I go into youth soccer, I’d hear parents who are doctors and lawyers tell me the best position for their kids.
That would drive me crazy. [Laughs.] It’d be like me coming to their jobs and talking about heart surgery. Being where I was, I have a duty to give back.
The restaurant: With 60 beers on tap and a great patio, Burger Moe’s in St. Paul is a great place to stop before a concert or game at Xcel Energy Center. Moe Sharif, who owns this place and the Downtowner Woodfire Grill across the street, has been a Sanneh Foundation supporter.
What we ate: Sanneh had the taco burger—eight ounces of Angus beef loaded with taco seasoning and topped with jalapeños, cheddar, and mozzarella, served on a freshly baked bun from Saint Agnes Baking Co. I had a turkey panini with smoked mozzarella, Gorgonzola, and pepperoncini.
My lunch date: Sanneh’s a creature of habit. If he finds a shirt he likes, he buys it in six colors. He wore gym shoes to lunch.
Jason DeRusha anchors WCCO-TV’s morning and noon news. He also asks some really good questions.