Going from a standout player in the States to joining a European club can be a bit of a jarring experience, but one former Virginia Military Institute soccer player is doing just that.
Ayao Sossou ’12 recently signed a one-year contract with Tampereen Pallo-Veikot (TPV), a club based in Tampere, Finland. After spending time in the Scandinavian country over the past two summers, with the help of his former coach, Richie Rose, Sossou landed on a spot on the roster, wearing #22.
It was an interesting transition for Sossou, who finds the European style of play a more physical, faster game. But that doesn’t mean Sossou is being left behind.
“One mistake, and you can get punished; I learned that the hard way” said Sossou. “But I’ve gotten a lot better since the season started and I’m adapting to the style of play here.”
Sossou has already contributed to the TPV side, posting an assist in an exhibition match and very nearly scoring on the play. So far in the current season, which is made up of 27 regulation games, eight exhibitions and the chance at the Finnish Cup, Sossou has played in 180 minutes in two games as a left back, his natural position this season, in addition to four games during the Finnish Cup.
During his time in Lexington, Sossou gained plenty of experience, playing in 60 games, well over 4,700 minutes, in his four years. In that time he scored one goal and had one assist, converting a penalty kick final campaign at VMI.
Playing in Finland, as one might imagine, is quite different from playing in Lexington, Va. According to Sossou, the temperature rarely rises above 26 degrees Celsius (79 degrees Fahrenheit), but the winter months are long and dark, with Tampere located so far north on the European continent, over 100 miles from the Finnish capital, Helsinki. Conversely, the spring and summer seasons see Tampere bathed in sunlight for long hours, perfect for outdoor sports such as soccer.
With the darkness, however, signals the start of the season, kicking off with indoor training in January. The team does not move to an outdoor facility until April to begin preparing for the season, which began May 4. At the time of writing, TPV was 1-2-0, dropping its first two matches, but rebounding in the third, 2-0 over Ball-Iirot.
While soccer may be the constant in Sossou’s life, things off the pitch have not been easy, given the difficulty of the Finnish language, classified by the Defense Language Institute as a Level III (of four levels) in difficulty for native English speakers. Only Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), Japanese and Korean have a higher rating than Finnish.
“Finnish is hard,” said Sossou with a laugh. “It’s unlike anything else in the world. Fortunately, a lot of people speak English as well, so it made the transition a little easier.”
Being dropped into a foreign land, unable to communicate with native speakers, can make things even more difficult. Sossou used his time at VMI to help him prepare for survival in a new place.
“I’ve never been away from home, other than my time at VMI, for very long,” said Sossou, who is from Lome, Togo, but attended Urbana High School in Maryland. “VMI taught me to learn how to survive on my own in another country on a different continent.”
But Sossou isn’t the only former Keydet in Scandinavia. His Brother Rat, Keith Gabriel, is currently playing basketball for the Norrkoping Dolphins, a Swedish club located roughly 400 miles southwest of Tampere. The pair, who were both a part of VMI basketball’s run to the Big South Conference championship game in 2011-12, Gabriel as a player, Sossou as a manager, stay in touch in Europe and make an effort to try and catch each other’s games.
Despite the moderate language barrier and a different culture, one constant remains for Sossou and his new club: a sense of togetherness and unity, a quality he attributes to his four seasons with the VMI team as well. Last season, the TPV squad qualified for the Finnish Cup, the winner of which earns a berth in the UEFA Cup. Despite being bounced in the Round of 16 of the Finnish Cup, the team pulled together during a 10-hour road trip, winning the game, despite going down 1-0 just 10 seconds in, and helping the group reach the Round of 16.
Things are not always easy for Sossou, who is one of many international players on the TPV roster, but the only one with playing time in States. But with the help of technology, he maintains contact not only with Gabriel, but his former head coach, Richie Rose, who Sossou cites as a big help, particularly on difficult training days.
In fact it was with Rose’s help that Sossou got to Finland. One of Rose’s former players from Lander University, Antti Suoniemi, played for a non-professional team in Finland and helped Sossou get looked at by Finnish clubs during his summers abroad.
Sossou is on a one-year contract with TPV. The international player stated that to extend his contract or move up in the European professional ranks, he will have to work extra hard day in and day out and learn to take criticism.
“You can’t stay the same, you have to want to improve every day,” said Sossou, looking forward to the remaining TPV 2013 slate.