I haven't checked everywhere, but I'm pretty sure Sadam Ali's life story hasn't been optioned for a movie. It should be.
Even before Ali became the unlikeliest of heroes for upstart soccer club FC Tucson, the journey Ali has taken from refugee of a war-torn nation to footie prodigy is the kind of stuff Leonardo DiCaprio would be champing at the bit to repurpose into a vehicle for his inability to grow real facial hair.
So as not to spoil this Oscar-level story when it hits the big screen, here's the Cliff Notes version:
Ali, 18, is a Kenyan refugee who ended up in Tucson nine years ago, with his family getting plucked from harsh conditions by the United Nations. He attends Rincon/University High School, where the senior is a star forward for the Rangers' soccer team and also a star student in class.
He's also one of the top club soccer players in Tucson, which is how he caught the eye of FC Tucson coach Rick Schantz when Schantz and his cohorts were looking to fill out a roster for the club's exhibition with Major League Soccer opponent Chivas USA.
And though Ali didn't get into the Nov. 15 match until the 86th minute, he almost instantly etched his name in Tucson's growing soccer lore, scoring off a defensive counterattack in the 89th minute to give FC Tucson a 1-0 win and its first-ever victory over a club from the top level of professional soccer in this country.
"In the lead-up to this match, that was far from the expected plan," Schantz said jokingly of Ali, who in all honesty was on the FC Tucson roster only because the team wanted 22 to 24 players in uniform so it could hold a full scrimmage the day before. "But when we bring players in, we usually expect them to be able to participate in an event."
The game was already considered a success when Ali, Gavino Carranza and two others subbed for FC Tucson starters in the final stretch of the second half. A crowd of more than 2,400 was on hand to christen the Kino Sports Complex's North Stadium, a $1 million project that Pima County wholeheartedly backed as a way of showing its support for Tucson soccer. So Schantz decided to give the fans a chance to see some of the local future.
Having Ali score was an extra treat, but it also showed how quickly his skills have progressed in just six years of playing the game.
A late surge by Chivas was squashed at the FC Tucson back line, leading to a clear-out. But instead of the ball going out of bounds, it curled away from the sidelines. A Chivas defender slipped while trying to control the ball, allowing veteran Ricardo Mardoqueo to gain possession and charge toward the Chivas back line.
"Sadam, as soon as he saw Ricardo get it, he ran toward the side of the goal," Schantz said.
Mardoqueo passed up a chance to take a shot, instead crossing to Ali, who one-timed it into the net for the game-winner.
"As soon as the ball touched me I knew it was going in," Ali said. "Right away I was like, 'Oh my God.' I was so excited I ran away from the fans."
Schantz said he was amazed at how instinctively Mardoqueo and Ali acted on that play, seeing as only Ali speaks English.
But that's just part of how far Ali has progressed since first playing soccer in middle school. He'd never tried the game while living in Kenya as a young boy, though much of his eight years there was spent in refugee camps.
"It was a struggle," he said of the time in his homeland, leaving it at that.
Ali and his family ended up in Tucson on April 15, 2004, and since then he's assimilated himself into the community, both athletically and as a student. Schantz said Ali's grade-point average at Rincon is "very high." And it's the goal of Schantz and many other people associated with FC Tucson and the Fort Lowell Soccer Club (for whom Ali plays) to get Ali a soccer scholarship.
"We really hope he gets an opportunity to go to college," Schantz said.
In the meantime, Ali will start at forward for Rincon, which began its season this week in the Brandon Bean Kickoff Classic that Salpointe Catholic hosts each season.
In past years Ali wouldn't have been able to play for both Rincon and FC Tucson, or he'd have had to wait until after the game against Chivas to join the Rangers. The Arizona Interscholastic Association's rules on in-season participation for non-high school teams used to be such that, once you practiced for the first time for your school, you were banned from any other soccer activities until that season ended.
That scenario caused Rincon to forfeit every regular season game after it was learned a player had participated in a three-on-three tournament in Florida during the season.
The rule now says that once a player plays in his first high school game he's locked into that team, Schantz said. It's one of the few wise decisions made by the same organization that chose to postpone state football semifinal games because of ... rain.