Football’s island charm | Brian Ching, Oahu and how Hawai‘i gained a World Cup spot

Hanauma Bay, Oahu, 24 April 2006. Football in this setting might seem like a needless distraction or an aesthetic overdose.

Haleiwa, Hawai‘i | He spent part of one summer planting birds of paradise while working 8½-hour shifts on one of Oahu’s “plantations,” surfed, and played soccer at Kamehameha High School. Brian Ching, a forward for the U.S. national team that enters its fifth straight World Cup finals, recalls watching the 1994 event when he was 16. He remembers being excited when the U.S. defeated Colombia—the first U.S. victory in a finals since 1950—yet feels compelled to add, “Overall, though, I think at the time I was more concerned with how the waves were.”

While U.S. defender Frankie Hejduk goes by the moniker “surfer dude,” Ching seems to have stronger credentials. To the Boston Globe in 2004, Ching described his childhood as “amphibious.” The first native Hawaiian to play internationally for the United States—and, to our knowledge, the first Hawaiian on a World Cup roster—Ching represents the spread of soccer beyond the U.S. mainland. We spent part of our formative years in Oahu rambling around a U.S. Army installation, Schofield Barracks, but at the same time as Pelé and Carlos Alberto helped guide Brazilian football to new heights in Mexico City, one was more likely to spot a snow goose than a soccer ball.

All this has changed.

The sign serves as a landmark at a crossing in Haleiwa

Surfer-dude crossing

Ching’s hometown, Haleiwa, exists far from the urban centers on the archipelago’s most populated island, yet by the time he was 7 he could join a youth team, with his mother coaching. In high school, he graduated to the elite Honolulu youth club, Bulls ’85, which in 2004 became the first Hawai‘i team to win a national title in the U.S. Youth Soccer Association. The team makes its home at the Waipi’o Peninsula Soccer Complex, one of the best in the country. The facility makes the Islands a mecca for traveling teams, and Hawai‘i sometimes attracts up to a dozen summer tournaments.

Hawaiian soccer has developed to the point of having its own style, a “rich mix,” according to Frank Dell’Apa of the Boston Globe, “with a strong Asian influence.” Natasha Kai of Kahuku, Oahu, a North Shore village of corn fields and shrimp farms, duplicated Ching’s feat earlier this year by joining the U.S. women’s senior national team. A striker, she has scored three times in five international fixtures, including the lone goal in the side’s most recent match, in Japan, on May 9.

She says in an interview on that, as a Hawaiian, she has found it hard fitting in to the national-team structures due to her accent and the cultural separation that exists between Islanders and those on the mainland. She sometimes communicates in Pidgin, referred to as Hawai‘i’s Creole English. (A Pidgin New Testament, Da Jesus Book, is available.) Of her first appearance with a U.S. team, Kai, who has starred for the University of Hawai‘i, says, “I was really nervous. … I was not comfortable around anyone. I was kind of left by myself and I was kind of the runt in camp being from Hawai‘i.”

A runt’s reputation attached itself to soccer in its beginnings on the Islands. Jack Sullivan, called “Mr. Soccer” for his involvement reaching back more than 30 years, says he and others in 1974 started training with 225 boys on a field outside a jail. “We aren’t a traditional sport,” says Sullivan, referring to the games in which Hawaiians have excelled over time, including swimming (Duke Kahanamoku, Buster Crabbe), weightlifting (Tommy Kono), canoeing (Toots Minvielle) and golf (Jackie Pung, Michelle Wie). And how could we forget surfing? Hawai’i also has produced a gaggle of players, especially linemen, for the National Football League.

Kai after the goal against Japan on May 9. “I am representing Hawai‘i and the United States,” she says, “and, of course, that means a lot.” (Copyright © Brad Smith,

Sullivan, a mainland transplant like much of the Islands’ population, settled here in 1957, two years before Hawai‘i achieved statehood. He switched to soccer from coaching baseball because, according to Leila Wai of the Honolulu Advertiser, “he didn’t like the children being scared of making a mistake such as striking out or dropping a ball.”

Here is a sport [soccer] where you eliminate those things. You don’t have these negative things for timid kids. It creates responsible people with self-worth and the confidence to play other sports.

The Hawaiian soccer apparatus, as of 2004, incorporated more than 27,000 boys and girls as well as adults as active players. Registered leagues exist not only on Oahu, but on the Big Island of Hawai‘i, Maui and Kaua’i. Naturally, development of players is facilitated by the climate, but also by a preexisting sporting pipeline that emphasizes high school athletics. A long list of Hawaiian baseball players have used their high school years to gain attention from farm teams in Major League Baseball, eventually advancing to the top level. “When you ask someone from the Islands where they went to school,” writes magazine Island Scene, “they will usually answer with the name of their high school, even if they went to college.”

Sullivan, 70 years old when this picture was taken in 2004, grew up playing ice hockey in Boston. “Anything that has to do with soccer, he’s right in the middle of it,” said friend and sports broadcaster Les Keiter. (Deborah Booker | Honolulu Advertiser)

Hawai‘i High School Athletic Association executive director Keith Amemiya reaches back into island history to help explain the competitive mentality:

Hawai‘i student athletes are prized by colleges because they’re known for their toughness, hard work, and team-oriented outlook. Hawai‘i athletes are known for a warrior-type mentality of never giving up. People from Hawai‘i are known for having big hearts in that they are very generous, but also in the way of being very proud. I think because we are an island state in the middle of the ocean, we always feel we have to prove ourselves. Nobody wants to embarrass everyone back home.

Wrapped up in the popularizing of soccer, naturally, is the continuing sensitivity toward the native Hawaiian culture. Overrun by missionaries in the 1820s and then subsumed by a tide of imperialism in Washington (Queen Lili’uokalani was deposed by U.S. interests in 1893), the Islands have long struggled to integrate the kanaka maoli (indigenous) and haole (Anglo) populations (note 1). In soccer’s case, the sport’s acceptance among native Hawaiians likely has been smoothed in that Ching, although his mother is from California, and Kai have ties to local ways.

Sports appear to run through the veins of Hawaiians. Dan Cisco, who compiled a 651-page history of Hawaiian sports, counted 59 that have been practiced on the Islands since the 1850s. And he does not include native sporting ways, reprised in the annual Makahiki Games. In reading descriptions of these contests, we did not find mention of anything resembling the ball games of Mayans or Native Americans, but many references to water sports and boxing (note 2).

Attempts are being made to bring back lava sledding (he’e holua), a 2,000-year-old practice of riding a sled head-first, at speeds of up to 50 mph, down hillside lava floes. Missionaries ended the sport, according to sled builder Tom Stone. “They wanted us to work, stop being happy,” he says.

The subtext for soccer, and for Ching’s anticipated appearance for the U.S. team in Germany, goes deeper than we have time to pursue fully. “I didn’t take the ordinary path the majority of guys on this team took to get where we are at,” says Ching, referring to his multiple surgeries and minor-league toils with the Seattle Sounders and Spokane (Wash.) Shadow. Ching’s path has been longer, and no doubt more scenic.


The U.S. Senate on 8 Jun 06 blocked legislation, originally introduced in 2000 by Senator Daniel Akaka (D-Hawai‘i), that would extend federal recognition to Native Hawaiians as indigenous people. The bill aims to create for Hawaiians, about 20 percent of the state’s population, a status comparable to Native American governments on the mainland. “The central issue of federal recognition for Hawaii’s indigenous people has yet to be given its fair examination,” Akaka said.


1. While missionaries provided loving service, such as Father Damien of Belgium in his ministry at the leprosy colony on Moloka’i, their influence typically is viewed as devastating to native practice and sensibilities. In addition, they, along with others, transmitted disease and brought lack of sophistication regarding the animist style of worship on the Islands. Writes Rev. Brian J. Grieves, an Episcopalian: “Hawai’i is often referred to as a paradise, but this didn’t prevent the missionaries from finding sin present among the ‘heathens.’ How sad they didn’t know God already was present in the islands when they arrived, not only as creator, but also in the spirituality of the kanaka maoli.

Author Stephen Kinzer in Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq (Holt, 2006) suggests that the monarchy’s ouster in 1893 represents one of the early cases of U.S.-backed regime change.

America’s long “regime change” century dawned in 1893 with the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. This was a tentative, awkward piece of work, a cultural tragedy staged as comic opera. It was not a military operation, but without the landing of American troops, it probably would not have succeeded. The president of the United States [Benjamin Harrison] approved of it, but soon after it happened, a new president [Grover Cleveland] took office and denounced it. | back to text

2. Mark Twain made a five-month excursion to Hawai‘i, then called the Sandwich Islands, in 1866 (see Lawrence Downes,Mark Twain’s Hawaii,” New York Times, 14 May 06). Twain does not write directly about sport but takes frequent outings on horseback and sails between the Islands, accompanied by rats and peach-leaf-sized cockroaches. His dispatches for the Sacramento Union, compiled in Roughing It, reflect mainland and anti-native bias, yet passages about the declining monarchy and reports on ritual and historic sites demonstrate what Downes calls Hawai‘i’s “complicated soul.” Twain describes coming to what is said to be an ancient battleground above Honolulu:

All around everywhere, not three feet apart, the bleached bones of men gleamed white in the moonlight. We picked up a lot of them for mementoes. I got quite a number of arm bones and leg bones—of great chiefs, may be, who had fought savagely in that fearful battle in the old days, when blood flowed like wine where we now stood—and wore the choicest of them out on Oahu [his horse] afterward, trying to make him go. | back to text

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. [...] Hawai‘i’s “Mr. Soccer,” Jack Sullivan, has defied convention on multiple occasions: by relocating from the mainland in 1957, two years before the Islands achieved statehood, and then switching his coaching interests from baseball to the unfamiliar game of soccer. Uncomfortable with seeing young baseball players living in fear of mistakes, Sullivan gravitated toward soccer, where such fears were eliminated: “You don’t have these negative things for timid kids. It creates responsible people with self-worth and the confidence to play other sports” (see 7 Jun 06). [...]

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