Wednesday, April 16, 2014

From Egypt To Cold Spring, Dwidar Builds Soccer Culture

Look Ahmed Dwidar in the eyes and ask him what he'd sacrifice for soccer. You will find there isn't much that he wouldn't.

Dwidar's fondest, most revisited childhood memories stem back to 1997, when he was a striker for the Gomhoria Club U12 team.

Framed pictures of that memorable squad, which practiced before the professional team, still adorn the walls of Dwidar's Wappingers Falls home.

Dwidar's father, Talat Dwidar, has coached soccer in Egypt's professional ranks for over 20 years. And so Dwidar took after his Dad in Shebin Al Kawm, a sprawling city located in the Nile Delta of Egypt, where soccer is the holiest of pastimes.

The passionate fan bases arrive at Elmenifa stadium in droves, as captivated as an American on Superbowl Sunday. The competitive spirit, often akin to bloodsport, has a tendency to go overboard.

There are riots.

There are violent fights, resulting in arrests and blood-soaked shirts and even death. The ramped up hostilities, sullying relationships from fan base to fan base on game day, are live and real in Egypt.

 Dwidar, who grew up a 10-minute bike ride from Elmenifa, witnessed this first hand as a kid.

 He recalls the tempers flaring frequently, the hot heads brawling it out in the stands.

 He can still pluck memories of a fist-trading fracas that morphed into a free-for-all.

 The lunacy exacerbated in 2012, when a horrifying post-game clash following al-Masry's victory over Cairo-based Al-Ahli resulted in 74 deaths. It is the country's worst soccer disaster.

Dwidar, who has captured two Section 1 championships in four years at Haldane, remembers the intense rushes of panic that swarmed him when he witnessed the massacre on television.

 His friends from Egypt were startled as the two fan bases warred.

The 28-year-old coach no longer wishes to talk about these events or revisit the  nightmarish sideshows of the Egyptian game. He's seen fan-player fights gruesome enough to make the Malice In The Palace look like an episode of Looney Tunes.

What Dwidar does like to discuss, however, is the evolution of his younger brother, Mahmoud Dwidar.

The 24-year-old, who turned professional when he was a teenager, has become a key striker for Gomhoria's professional team.

Depositing goals with his head and emerging as an aerial threat, Dwidar believes his younger brother possesses the gifts and coach's son IQ to have a long and prosperous career.

"He played for the Egyptian Olympic team and plays on the Gomhoria pro team," said Dwidar.

 "He's a homegrown product. My father has coached him since he was 10. I think coaching kids has helped us love the game even more. One thing he really emphasizes as a coach is to play with heart at all times. He rewarded his players by truly allowing them to love and respect the game. I always wanted to be a coach like him."

Dwidar moved to the United States in 1999, translating from Arabic to English that summer.

 He enrolled at RC Ketcham as a freshman in the fall of 2000, immediately earning a spot on varsity. The team won a sectional crown that year, but Dwidar's relationship with the coaching staff frayed over in-house disputes. He opted not to return.

Oddly enough, leaving the team enlivened his draw to the game.

 He began a three-year soccer odyssey, never once scouring the rearview mirror or entertaining thoughts of returning to the team following a sabbatical.

Rather than prolonging his career on the same Section 1 fields which he currently finds himself coaching, Dwidar became a mainstay at the open gyms. He dipped his feet into the club team waters.

 Today, Dwidar is not the biggest fan of the club and soccer routes, perceived by many as a threat to the varsity game.

Dwidar nearly had to re-recruit one of his former players, Sean Daly, when Daly flirted with pursuing the club route.

When Dwidar arrived at Haldane in the fall of 2010, the challenges were inevitable. His immediate goals were to slay the minimal expectations and shred any lingering doubt. From Day 1, his intentions were to refresh the brand.

"I had to coach nine seniors that year, which was tough as a 23-year-old," said Dwidar. "We always played schools in Class AA, A, and B during the regular season, rarely Class C. I think playing bigger schools helps us prepare, especially when it comes to Sectionals and big stage atmospheres like that. We were a smaller team, but we had a big heart. We wanted no excuses and only results."

The early results weren't much for promise.

Dwidar admits that managing the vastly different personalities and melding them into one was arduous. Soon enough, however, Dwidar spread his convictions of selflessness and sold his players on the team identity. He rehydrated the same tenets his father preached abundantly in Egypt.

Dwidar began incorporating catch phrases and motivational maxims and adages, writing a new quote on the chalkboard prior to every game. The team was fueled by then-senior Chris Marchese and the aforementioned Daly,  tandem Dwidar referred to as "Batman and Robin."

The Blue Devils snuck up on the prognosticators and fled obscurity, registering a 2-0 win over favored Solomon Schecter in the program's first Section 1/Class C championship.

Chris Marchese, now a starting midfielder at Mount St. Mary's College in Newburgh, accounted for both goals.

This past fall, the Blue Devils again won the Class C crown. They avenged a 2012 title game loss to Schecter, again with a 2-0 triumph. The Blue Devil's hyperactive defense, which made a sustained effort to negate Schecter's scoring threats, was crucial.

"Ahmed was always a laid back coach and knew how to have fun, but he never forgot about the most important thing which is winning," said senior captain Jay Marchese.

"If we were doing well and doing big things on the field, he would be okay with us joking around and having some fun, that's what soccer is all about. That really helped us come together as one. He also never let anything get out of hand, and knew when to be assertive."

While the championship was an end product of the work applied from August to November, Dwidar sees it as much more than that.

Since becoming Haldane's head coach, his vision was to establish a soccer culture. While there are no grass-roots or feeder programs in tiny Cold Spring, Dwidar instills a 12-month focus. It's all done in team format. The Blue Devils put forth a team in the Tarrytown Dome during the winter.

They practice at St. Basil's Academy gym throughout the ensuing seasons.

 "(Dwidar) has built a family at the school," explained Aiden Draper, who ignited the Blue Devils by drilling a 1-0 penalty kick during the Section 1 championship.

"He wants to get to know each player. It's a great environment for such a small district, he really works with what he's got."

Dwidar is an accurate depiction of film junkie, scouting teams and revisiting plays and getting a read on who to apply the clamps on. That work comes into focus during practice, as his players simulate opponents and Dwidar plots out defensive schemes.

"We have to keep the kids playing all year," Dwidar said.

"There is no other way. The culture at Haldane has definitely changed. The kids are tough and they play with heart. Of course, we couldn't have done it without (assistant coach) Rocco Appolonio."

While Dwidar is grateful for Appolonio and values his friendship with Lakeland coach Tim Hourahan, taking note of the traditionally-potent program he's furnished, there is one coach looks to when advice is needed.

"I pick up the phone and call my old man," Dwidar said. "He's always there with the words."