His passion for the beautiful game has seen him take part in the Champions League, Europa League and score in Germany, Ireland and Denmark. Now he’s crossed the pitch to coach the Luxembourg U17 team, one of the few American coaches in Europe. Jamath Shoffner talks to City Savvy!
America is a land which invests heavily (with people, time and money) in home-grown sports such as baseball, basketball and American football. It doesn’t have the same passion for its continental counterpart (you won’t find Beyoncé headlining ‘Super Soccer Sunday’), despite football being one of the biggest youth sports in America. The times, they are a-changing, though; America’s recent success in the World Cup under the ever-efficient German coach, Jurgen Klinsmann (Germany of course went on to win the title overall) has made the sport more popular. For one young boy in North Carolina, soccer was always the sport of his soul.
I fell in love with soccer the first time I kicked around a ball with my older brothers and ever since I was 5, I had a dream of playing professionally in Europe since there was no professional league in the US when I was growing up. There’s an old saying: ‘if you want to be an actor one of the best places to learn is LA’. Well, if you want to be a footballer, one of the best places to learn is Europe. I believe that if you want to be the best, you need to learn from the best. So the foundations of my dream and the life I live now were laid out very early for me.
Like most kids in America, I played multiple sports, but when I was forced to choose, there was no choice. I went on to play at my university, UNC Charlotte. From there sprang the chance to play major-league soccer.
That chance came in the shape of a successful try-out with Shelbourne FC, an Irish Premier League team. At 21, Jamath was going to join a European team as a striker in their glory years, making a Champions League appearance in 2002. He didn’t have a second thought about leaving home; his dream was coming true.
Playing the (European) field
And the dream got better; Jamath, new in Europe and hungry for success, was quickly noticed across the Irish Sea by English Premier League scouts and he moved to Queens Park Rangers. The coaches Iain Dowie and Gerry Francis, who Jamath describes as ‘some of the best coaches I’ve played for’ were the first to teach him how a great coach gets the best out of his players. He loved the country; the people were friendly and welcoming, although the style took some getting used to; speed and athleticism were key. He was on a roll, his opportunity getting longer and longer until one fateful day, before a critical match with Fulham, our hero tore his knee ligaments in training. After intensive surgery in London, he came back to the States to assess the situation. He’d suffered a severe setback before his career had really gotten started.
Jamath is, however, a philosopher; he was determined to get back to Europe; he trained hard and recovered well. His patience was rewarded as former U.S. National Team player, Brent Goulet, helped him get a trial where he secured a contract as a forward for the German team, Borussia Neunkirchen. Germany was an eye-opener for him; the football coaching under former Bundesliga player, Andreas Golombek, was disciplined, organised, tactical and hard-working. Jamath thrived and so did the team; they won the Saarland Cup and were headed for a great season when disaster struck. Jamath tore his knee ligaments yet again. Although he did come back for the second half of the season, his speed, which was what had marked his playing style, was visibly impaired. He said that he ‘was never the same player again’.
It is a mark of the man that these setbacks to his career didn’t break him. Jamath adapted his dream; from playing on the continent to coaching there instead, having been inspired by those he had worked under. I asked him about this difficult period in his life:
After the first knee operation, I was super distraught, because I was playing in a big team and my dream had just been realised when it happened. But I trusted God that things happened for a reason and things would work out, so I just got myself back into shape. But the second time? I was wondering, ‘is the writing on the wall for me?’ And in some ways it was, but I still had this huge drive to play. And by then I had developed an interest in coaching, so I knew I was going to stay in the game, in whatever capacity.
The road to Luxembourg
By then, Jamath had also another reason to be cheerful and motivated. When he went back to the States after the second knee operation, he met his future wife, Josie. She was studying French at university and was passionate about travel and Europe. They both knew they wanted to get back to the continent someday. Jamath played in Denmark and had another stint in Germany and coached in North Carolina, before playing for Kaerjeng in Luxembourg where he started as left defender in the 2009 Europa League. The experience left a huge impression on the couple and when Jamath was offered the chance at an apprenticeship to coach the youth national team, he jumped at it.
The apprenticeship turned into a full-time contract as assistant coach to the U16/17 national team. Josie now works at the International School of Luxembourg and the family (for they have 3 boys) have well settled into Luxembourg. I asked Jamath what he thinks of the Duchy.
We all love it. When we were told of the move and spoke to the kids about it, all they said was ‘when?’ Josie loves adventure and Luxembourg offers such a welcoming environment for families; it’s safe and it’s multicultural. Our kids are learning something they just couldn’t get at home. It feels like we’re supposed to be here right now.
Football in the Duchy
It’s a good time for football in Luxembourg too. The senior national team’s head coach is Luxembourgish and the technical director is German. The combination is electric and there has never been as much success as there is now in both the youth and senior teams. Jamath tells me that they’ve never had so many Luxembourgish youth playing in the top clubs around Europe.
Luxembourgers are also passionate about football; it’s the most popular sport here. But it also brings people together, an important aspect for a country where a new wave of expats enter every year. The Luxembourgers that I have met, with whom I work every day, are naturally welcoming. Although, I speak some German and am learning more everyday 95% of the players I coach speak English. There’s no language barrier in any case; we can speak the universal language of sport!
Jamath was the first American to play in Luxembourg; he’s one of a handful of American coaches to ever coach in Europe and he is the very first American field coach to coach for a European FA. He’s breaking down barriers; at home, he performs the role of football ambassador; in Luxembourg, he brings a combination of American ‘can-do’ spirit, combined with experience at the top league level. A pioneer and an inspiration, we wish our extraordinary expat for November the best of luck!