In the United States, the sport of soccer can sometimes be a bit of an afterthought when compared to sports like football, basketball and baseball. In other nations like Italy, soccer is more than just a sport. It's the beautiful game, closer to a way of life than just something to do.
This year, Central High School boys' soccer got to experience that passion for the sport first hand. Francesco Alzate, an Italian exchange student, recently wrapped up playing the 2019 season with the Red Raiders.
"I loved it. It's much different of course because it's not as popular as it is in Italy," Alzate said. "But I really liked it, I enjoyed the team."
Alzate, a junior who is graduating early, came to Coffee County from the town of Ivrea. His hometown is in the northern part of the country near Milan.
A midfielder, Alzate has played the game almost all of his life. He played with the same club team, also named Ivrea, for a majority of his soccer career.
"The big difference between here and Italy is that we don't have sports with school," Alzate explained. "I find it really interesting that we can play with the school here. I think it's really cool that we can represent the school."
While most American kids might look up to an athlete like Kevin Durant or Tom Brady, Alzate's favorite player is Andres Iniesta, a former Barcelona midfielder who currently plays in Japan.
As a resident of Northern Italy, it's no surprise his favorite club is AC Milan.
Heading into the 2018-19 school year, Alzate knew that soccer would take something of a backseat to other sports in the area. While he knew it wasn't as popular, Alzate was surprised to learn about the passion American players had for the game. The skill levels among players was also higher than he expected.
"I thought the level was going to be really, really low," Alzate said. "But it wasn't: the players are great. I was really pleasantly surprised with that."
Alzate's experience against high-level Italian players proved to fit in well with CHS this year. The midfielder contributed two goals on the way to the Raiders' run to the district finals against Shelbyville.
"Francesco helped us significantly in the midfield," Coach Robert Harper said. "Bringing some experience there and playing well offensively and defensively."
In addition to playing for CHS, Alzate also helped coach a local U-10 team in the Coffee County Soccer League. His team closed out the season with a tournament victory.
His team included the daughter of Lisa Sullenger, who hosted Alzate for the school year.
"He's been a great big brother to my other kids, he's a good role model," Sullenger said. "He's really taught me the skills of the game and the game itself."
Outside of soccer, Alzate got to try out plenty of American sports over the course of the year. He had never seen American football before coming here but got to play for CHS as a kicker during the fall.
"I never really got to play because I wasn't too great," Alzate said with a laugh. "But I enjoyed it anyway, I enjoyed the group. It was a pretty cool experience.”
Alzate was also able to spend some Saturdays watching Tennessee football on television and even got to go to a couple of Braves games.
Similar to the high-scoring aspects of sports like basketball and football, Alzate said that in America, soccer is much more focused on offense. As a midfielder, he enjoyed that there was a higher emphasis on scoring attempts.
Other differences between the American game and Italian included changes in the rules. Alzate said while there is no limit on sub-ins here in the states, in Italy the limit is three.
Alzate acknowledged that while it may not be the most popular sport on this side of the Atlantic, more people followed it than he realized.
Experiencing the game from an American perspective was only highlighted for Alzate by getting to do so here in Coffee County. He was thankful to his teammates and the community for embracing him and providing a home away from home.
"I love this community. I love the people around here, they're all so nice," Alzate said. "I loved playing soccer and I love the group that we created."