Franco’s soccer success helps him break through cultural barrier

soccer ball

By Jimmy Allinder

It is a soccer goalie’s worst nightmare.

The opposing team is awarded a free kick outside the penalty box and usually the player with the strongest leg places the ball on a spot while a wall of defenders 10 yards away blocks the goal. There is no way a straight boot will result in a score.

Truly gifted players know what to do in this situation. They arc their kicks around the wall and past the outstretched hands of the goaltender, finding only net.

Jonathan Franco, now a rising senior at South River High School, has faced such an obstacle, having to learn English while being raised by a family that initially did not speak the language. His story about breaking through this cultural barrier is a testament to how an individual’s strong will to succeed can produce positive results.

Although Franco was born in the United States in 1997, his family emigrated from Portugal to Kearny, New Jersey, a year earlier. Because his family did not learn English until a few years later, Franco encountered extreme difficulty completing schoolwork when he entered elementary school.

“The language barrier made it difficult at first,” he said. “But my father, [Joao], mother [Paula], and older brother, [Rui], started to understand English, and I learned it, too, so school eventually became easier. I admit, though, my best language is still Portuguese.”

Fortunately, soccer proved to be the perfect diversion for a youngster hampered by his linguistic difficulties. Franco was introduced to the game that in Portugal is almost a religion and before long, he was playing head and shoulders above children his age.

“I learned soccer growing up watching my father,” Franco said. “He saw I could do things other kids could not. My recreation team coaches said I should play in a more competitive league because of my potential.”

Franco did exactly that but understood it was just one of a series of steps he needs to realize his goal, which is to eventually become a pro.

“To go far, I can’t be motivated by cheering fans watching me play,” he said. “I need to sweat when nobody’s around. With the help of God and being mentally strong, I can make it. As Neymar (a Brazilian who plays for Barcelona Football Club in Spain) says, ‘There is no pressure when making a dream come true.’ ”

Franco’s family moved to South River when he was in middle school and life changed again, but this time he handled the transition better.

“I instantly noticed kids, some in high school, playing soccer in the streets,” he said. “Even though I was younger than most, I learned a lot, but the most important lesson was I needed to improve.”

Franco played for years with the North Plainfield Falcons, a Union County U14 club, but two years ago graduated to the more competitive PDA (Players Development Academy) U17 Pele team coached by Michael Nigro, a former J.P. Stevens High School and Rider University player.

“Jonathan is a very talented footballer,” Nigro said. “He has played outside back and outside midfield and is technically proficient at passing, dribbling and the ability to finish. Jonathan’s got a bright future in soccer.”

Franco’s improvement has been exponential since he joined South River, illustrated by his point production. As a freshman, he made token appearances. But the following season, Franco scored nine goals with nine assists and was one of the Rams’ top players. As a junior, he became one of the focal points of the South River attack and netted 20 goals and nine assists.

“JJ has been a valuable member of our team, and he keeps getting better,” Rams coach Eric Clays said of Franco. “He was instrumental in our march to the sectional championship last fall, his teammates love him and he’s a lot of fun to coach.”

The 2-0 NJSIAA sectional final victory over Metuchen High School is Franco’s most cherished moment because he scored a goal and assisted on the other. In four state tournament games, he notched six goals.

Franco admits the difficulties he experienced learning English still requires that he spend extra time doing his schoolwork, but he continues to make progress.

Senior teammate Nark Miranda understands the difficulties Franco experienced because he and his family came from Brazil (Portuguese is also spoken there) under similar circumstances. The pair has developed a close relationship, and now Franco considers him a brother.

If he gets accepted, Franco would like to join Miranda at Fairleigh Dickinson University-Teaneck. But wherever he lands after graduation, he wants his next soccer venture to bring him closer to becoming a pro.

“Right now, I’m living the dream,” Franco said. “My dad told me to never let anything or anybody stop me from doing what I want to do, so I’ve tried hard to follow his advice. I thank God for blessing me with my ability to play soccer, and I hope that takes me far.”

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