Tunisian coach settles in Suffolk
Published 2:47 pm Saturday, April 20, 2013
Lakeland High School’s boys’ soccer coach Nizar Arfaoui was raised a world away, but he has applied the principles he learned in his Tunisian childhood and professional soccer career to help him live the American dream as an adult.
Arfaoui, 37, was born in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, which is the smallest country in North Africa, and he remembers his upbringing fondly.
“I really had a very balanced childhood,” he said. “I loved it.”
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His father, Sadok Arfaoui, who was an engineer, taught him discipline and respect.
“I was brought up to respect my parents, and whatever they tell me to do, I do,” he said.
“At a younger age, I figured out in order for you to lead, you’ve got to follow first,” he said.
A constant in his life starting around the age of 3 or 4 was the game of soccer. Often in Tunisia, a child’s introduction to the game comes when his parents buy him a ball.
“There is no computerized things, there is no iPad or Apple or any of that,” he said. “You don’t get introduced to that. You’re lucky if you get a ball. This is something very, very expensive.”
Sometimes a ball would be a group purchase by kids in a neighborhood, so everyone could share it and play.
“The first time when I played, to be honest with you, I played in the street,” he said.
“So you start kicking it, and then you want to participate with everybody else,” he said. “That’s what the game is all about. It puts you in like these brackets, just like a family thing.”
Professional soccer clubs treat street games as an opportunity to scout future talent, and Arfaoui was recruited by Stade Tunisien, for which he began to play at the age of 10.
The club coaches helped reinforce and develop what his father had taught him and through soccer, he learned that sports “makes you a better human being. It makes you learn to respect the opponent, learn how to compete, how to adapt yourself, how to overcome situations, how to control your stress, how to be creative, how to have fun doing something that you love.”
Arfaoui said he was not a star player, but he was a strong left defender who rose to play on the national-level team in the U-12 division. At that time Stade Tunisien won the cup, a national competition including around 100 teams, defeating Esperance Sportif.
Talented enough to continue playing for Stade Tunisien at the age of 17, Arfaoui had become a professional soccer player, but he tore a ligament in his knee at the age of 20, ending his playing career.
He decided to leave sports behind and came to the United States in 1998 on business for his father’s building and topography company.
“So I came here on a business trip, and when I came here, I liked it,” he said.
He arrived in New York when he was 21 and decided to stay, working at a Chinese grocery store and making connections and friends, some of them in Virginia.
“I came to Virginia, make the connection right here, start working hard,” he said.
He met his future wife, Tracy, locally when he was 23, and they eventually wed and now have two children.
“It’s a typical, normal American family,” he said. “Very modest people.”
“I’ve got a small business, convenience store, and then I bought the property, which is a rental,” he said. “Since then, I’ve been living right here (in Suffolk).”
He returned to soccer when he began coaching his son, Walid Christopher, in the U-8 division of the Suffolk Youth Athletic Association.
Arfaoui is now making it his goal to promote and further the sport in Suffolk.