by Kara Hansen
ATCHISON — At Catholic Soccer Camps, players are getting one step closer to God — one kick at a time.
“The goal of the camps is to integrate a high level of soccer training and a high level of Catholic spirituality,” said Antonio Soave, executive director of the School of Business at Benedictine College in Atchison and founder of Catholic Soccer Camps. “Athletes build their skills while building their faith at the same time.”
Soccer players from the archdiocese and beyond are invited to join other young athletes from around the country at one or both of two Catholic Soccer Camps sessions to be held on the campus of Benedictine College this summer. Sessions will run from July 12 to 17 and July 19 to 24, for youngsters ages 6-17. Both sessions are open to both boys and girls. Campers have the option of staying for both sessions if they choose and can enroll as day campers or can stay overnight.
Soave said that staff members at the camp are not only devout Catholics, but high caliber soccer players and coaches, as well.
“We don’t compromise on soccer skills. Coaches and professional players are from Italian professional teams, and Italy is considered one of the better schools of soccer in the world in terms of soccer skills,” said Soave. “Our staff is augmented with college soccer players from around the country who are both great soccer players and good at sharing their faith.”
The Catholic component of the soccer camps is woven into the daily activities, he explained. Prayers are said before meals and at water breaks, and the chaplet of the Divine Mercy is even prayed while the kids and teens are warming up. Mass is celebrated daily and adoration, praise and worship music, and the sacrament of reconciliation are offered in the evenings throughout the week.
“Prayer is part and parcel of the way we train, so it becomes a natural part of life and soccer,” explained Soave. “It becomes very much a part of how we live.”
Last year, Catholic Soccer Camps was offered for the first time in Steubenville, Ohio, and drew over 100 campers from around the United States and five other countries. In addition to the camp in Atchison this summer, plans are also in the works for camp sessions in Ireland and Canada. Soave also operates Catholic Soccer Missions, in which he and other staff offer soccer camps to impoverished children in foreign countries at no charge.
“We want to show kids you can be a great soccer player and a faith-filled person, and they are not mutually exclusive,” said Soave.
Soave brings an extensive soccer background to Catholic Soccer Camps — and some impressive personal credentials as well. After being named All-American in high school, he played soccer in college at what was then North Texas State University. Soave made it to the final cut of the 1983 World Youth Cup team before leaving college to pursue a professional soccer career in Italy.
A bad knee injury eventually led to Soave’s decision to leave professional soccer to pursue a degree in international relations from the American University in Washington, D.C.
From there, Soave found ways to integrate his faith through public service and the business world. After serving as a White House intern in foreign policy and defense, Soave ran for the House of Representatives in his home state of Michigan.
He went on to earn a law degree, create his own international marketing and investment banking company, create his own film company, and serve as editorial chief of the Journal of International Law and Practice.
“The common thread through all my life experience has been international peace. That’s what my driving passion is,” said Soave.
At the same time, Soave never really left soccer. He was part of an ownership group of three professional soccer teams in Michigan. Soave operated the World Youth Soccer Academy with Disney at its Wide Wide World of Sports complex. He also hosted “The Soccer Academy,” a national television show focusing on soccer, while simultaneously developing a greater cultural understanding of other countries and ethnic groups.
“I felt like we could really spread peace and bring about a deeper understanding by using soccer as a tool,” explained Soave.
So when he thought of another way to integrate his Catholic faith and the sport he loved, Soave was quick to dedicate his time to making Catholic Soccer Camps a success.
“It’s most definitely a way for kids to grow in their faith and not feel excluded for doing that,” he said. “At camp, we demonstrate to youth soccer players [that] it’s cool to be Catholic. They see Catholic role models who are also great athletes. They have a chance to see the beauty of faith as well as the game.”
Dana Nearmeyer, archdiocesan coordinator for evangelization and Catholic formation, said he was excited kids in the archdiocese would have the opportunity to attend Catholic Soccer Camps.
“Antonio is bringing in some of the greatest soccer coaches in the world, but it’s not just about the game. It’s about bringing kids to Christ and making the world a better place,” he said.
True to his desire to work for global peace, Soave has also found ways to integrate the international play of soccer and the cultural component it brings into the theme of camp. He hopes campers leave Atchison this summer with an increased level of soccer skill and a deepened faith.
“We use the term at camp ‘warriors’ because that’s what we have to be. You have to be a warrior on the soccer field and a warrior in Christ,” said Soave. “Being a good athlete prepares people to be good Catholics. You’re already used to working hard, sacrificing, getting back up after getting knocked down. You need those qualities for great faith.”