The light is brittle from the floodlights, the night colder than any African night should be, the Vuvuzelas are blaring at full volume, and Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg is a riot of color as the fans arrive giving the stands the look of a bedazzled sweater. The game is the US versus Slovenia and the South African fans are torn between supporting the USA, who they love and Slovenia who are the underdogs in the game.
Seated in the stands among the screaming fans is Eric Akunda a Kenyan currently residing in Oakton, VA. Like so many fans from around the world, Eric has come to watch the world cup, but unlike many of the other fans, he is on a special mission. He is here to make his son’s dreams come true in a most unusual but heartbreakingly beautiful way.
Chris Akunda, Eric’s son, was not only a devoted fan of the game who had been saving up for a long time to come to the world cup with his father. Chris played soccer too, and spent hours on You Tube watching clips of soccer games from all over the world, looking for what he described as, “sick moves to put on his opponents during games.” Chris played soccer diligently, and when not on the actual field, or on You Tube soaking up moves, he played Playstation FIFA World Cup games.
He was a 7th grader at Hamilton Southeastern Junior High in Indiana and he excelled at school, math and a love of writing standing shoulder to shoulder with his love for soccer. But he also played basketball and the piano. A member of the Fishers Soccer Club, a non-profit that participated in leagues for under 13 players across the United States, Chris was also part of the Indiana Soccer Olympic Development Program since he was ten, having started playing soccer at four.
Chris had been playing in the Coca Cola Classic Soccer Tournament in Greenwood Indiana on the 6th of June 2009, when he collapsed on the field, and was taken to the ER. He died some hours later from a hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a congenital heart condition that had gone undiagnosed. He was 12.
Soccer was Chris’ love. He was, as his father Eric told me, a crazy soccer fan who understood the game so scientifically and intimately that he had followed soccer players long before they became stars, often predicting to his father who they would become, and every prediction he made about the players who would have career defining moments from Spain, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Africa and even the US are all coming true. His expertise even included a deep knowledge of the referees and who would be a good or bad draw for a particular team. Every prediction he made for the World Cup as far as best player, highest goal averages, is all coming true. It also turns out, Eric tells me, that Chris taught him a lot of what he knew about the current state of the game.
Chris’ parents, Eric and Jacqueline Akunda, who were ardent fans and supporters of their son, yet maintained full time jobs, were dedicated to get him to games and tournaments. And although they didn’t tell me this, I suspect that a number of their decisions were partly motivated by the need and desire to give Chris more of their time and attention.
To honor their son’s desire, Eric brought Chris’ cremated remains to South Africa, and he takes Chris’ remains to the games he attends. When I spoke to Eric, he and Chris had been to three games, and intended to go to as many more as he could manage and as of July 1st, he had been to 7 games, and watched a number of young players Chris had predicted would have an impact for their teams. Eric says that at the end of the last game he watched in person, Paraguay vs. Japan, he realized that he had sat on seat #19 – Chris’ chosen number.
With a voice full of grief balanced with a grace I cannot even begin to summon, Eric told me: it was a privilege to have Chris through our lives.
This moving story, in the midst of the world cup controversies and excitements reminded this writer not only of the deeply human aspects to gatherings like this, but to the deep generosity of Africa and her children.
For more information on Chris and to send your sympathies, and thoughts to Chris Akunda’s family, visit www.chrisakunda.com