SHREWSBURY, England --The journey -- it is a soccer journey -- starts with a bunch of lovely names: Marylebone, Wrexham and Shropshire. Marylebone is the London railroad station where you board the train run by the Wrexham and Shropshire railway -- a train with the atmosphere of the good old days when rail travel was the way to go. Three hours or so of rail comfort through some of England's most enchanting greenery and you're in the beautiful old town of Shrewsbury.
The birthplace of Charles Darwin, Shrewsbury must still look much as he knew it, with its carefully preserved half-timbered Tudor houses leaning inwards over the narrow streets. At least, that's the town center. The suburbs of course have developments that are worlds removed from Darwin's day.
A short cab ride will bring you to the Sports Village, where 20 glowing green soccer fields are alive with action. The world has come to Shrewsbury in the form of the English Cup, a youth tournament that has attracted teams from Egypt, Peru, Mexico, Romania, Albania, Ireland and nearby Wales.
All seems to be going along smoothly, as far as I can tell -- I relay that opinion to the tournament director, Dr. Iain Skewis, who greets it with an amiable smile, slightly raised eyebrows, and a quizzically drawn out "Aaaaah ..."
So I plunge in with my inevitable question about bad language. I've heard too many English kids' teams over the years with their fortissimoswearing ... but Skewis dismisses the notion: "No, not really ... well, one year we did have a pretty bad problem like that, but the team was Scottish and their accent was so thick that no one could understand what they were screaming anyway!"
Skewis, who has that enviable ability to remain calm in the face of all manner of problems, has years of experience in running tournaments. He can tell of many hair-raising snafus and make them all sound like amusing asides. Even in this tournament? "Oh yes," he says. "We discovered that, out at Shrewsbury School which we use as accommodation for many of the teams, a girls team had been allocated the same floor as the Mexicans. So we moved the girls out.
"It's often little things, like maybe a typing error. We had a group entered, we thought, with 24 people -- they turned up with 55, so we're racing around looking for 31 more beds. But that got solved quickly."
I would have thought that a bigger problem would have been the reverse -- the teams that don't turn up at all. But Skewis says no, that's not been a difficulty. He adds, with some wonderment in his voice, " ... though we have had problems from time to time with referees not turning up!"
Exactly that greets my first foray on to the fields, to watch the U-15 Mexicans of Pachuca take on Bangor City of Wales. The game starts an hour late, no one seems too upset. Except perhaps the Bangor youngsters, given a 5-0 drubbing by a very good Pachuca side.
Not that the foreigners had things all their own way. The Albanian team, Kinostudio, had been applying for admission to the tournament for several years. "It's about five years," said Skewis, "I must have written a hundred letters to embassies and border controls, without any luck. Then, suddenly, this year, they get their visas." And that was as far as Kinostudio's luck went -- it lost all three of its games, with an 0-28 goal difference.
The biggest surprise of the event came in the U-18 group, which included teams from two English Premier League clubs, Stoke City and Blackburn Rovers and from Egyptian powerhouse, Al Ahly. But the winner was a team from the local club Shrewsbury Town -- whose senior team is in League Two, three divisions below the Premier League.
In the final, Shrewsbury beat the Egyptians of Al Ahly. An international matchup that highlighted the superior technical skill of the Egyptians and the non-stop commitment of the English. That confrontation of styles really finished all square -- the game had to be decided on penalties.
The style battle was repeated in the best of the finals between the U-15s of Pachuca and England's Bristol Rovers. Clearly Rovers had done their scouting and recognized that Pachuca were probably the best team in the tournament. So Rovers played tough defense, with the occasional long-ball counterattack. An intriguing game, but the English style at its least sophisticated was no match for the polished Mexicans, who claimed the U-15 Cup with a 2-0 win.
And so the 2009 English Cup ended with an exhibition of excellent soccer. I started this tale with a group of rather unusual names, and so it shall end. Three more names: Brendan Mitchell Rosas -- the first two are unusual only because this is a Mexican name, belonging to the skillful and elegant Pachuca player who won the tournament's MVP award.
And were I one of the many British coaches who were at this tournament, I would surely be asking myself just why none of the British teams here included a player with anything like the class of the young Rosas.