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Swedish exchange soccer players arrive in Duluth

A group of boys wait with welcome signs for their Swedish guests to arrive. (Photo by Ryley Graham)1 / 2
From left, Samuel Lindström, Hannes Lissing, Simon Karlsson, Oscar Stenberg and David Downing watch the Sweden vs. Belgium soccer game from Grandma’s Sports Garden. (Photo by Michael Graham) 2 / 2

Every other year Duluth hosts a soccer tournament called the Sister City Soccer Cup. The goal of this tournament is to bring together local high school soccer players with players from Vaxjo, Sweden, one of Duluth's five sister cities. The Sister City Soccer Cup is the cornerstone for a two-year program called the Duluth Vaxjo Soccer Exchange (DVSE).

On Tuesday, 60 Swedish teenagers were greeted in Duluth by their American host families, with whom they will stay for the next two weeks to play soccer, build friendships and exchange cultures.

Along with the 60 players came about 40 Swedish parents, as well as siblings, coaches and program alumni. The DVSE parent board takes on the large task of coordinating the entire trip and making sure that every visitor feels welcome.

"We work year-round getting ready for these two weeks," said board president Jill Gates. "We started planning last July after we got home from our travel year in Sweden."

As of the Budgeteer's deadline, the Sister City Soccer Cup plans to hold opening ceremonies at Duluth East High School on June 24. The tournament is scheduled to include not only the U.S. and Swedish teams in each division, but also other teams from the area.

"It's great to see players from two different countries representing themselves on the field and playing with integrity," said Bill Gates, coach of the U.S. boys team. "They are competitive but when they leave the field there's still friendships forming and cultural exchange happening, which is really great to see from a coach's standpoint."

Because the tournament only lasts one weekend, the rest of the exchange time can be spent experiencing Minnesota. The players will take an overnight trip to the Twin Cities, and the parents will go hiking at Gooseberry Falls State Park. While a lot of time is reserved for individual families to plan things with their Swedish guests, there are events such as the welcome picnic on Wednesday where everyone can come together.

"We get to go down to the Mall of America and Valley Fair with all four teams," said U.S. team member Rachel Toscano. "Although it will be hectic, I'm sure we will have a lot of fun together."

Last year when the Duluth players visited Vaxjo, they were able to take part in the Midsummer festival, which isn't typically celebrated in America. They tasted traditional holiday foods and many were taught how to make head wreaths out of flowers. This year, one thing that many Swedes are looking forward to in America is the Fourth of July. Celebrating these two holidays provides a unique opportunity to enjoy each other's cultures first hand.

"We are going on a houseboat with our Swedes and their families for the Fourth of July weekend," said U.S. team member David Downing. "Then we are having a barbecue, watching fireworks, and just having a great time together."

While competitive soccer provides a means for the program, ultimately DVSE 's primary goal is to promote cultural exchange and build friendships. The hope is that after two weeks, players will be able to find common ground on and off the field.

"The most rewarding thing for me is to see the relationships that the kids have together," said Jill Gates.

The Swedish boys and their families head from the Minneapolis airport to Duluth. (Photo by Lisa Graham)