When they were students at Emerson College, Sam Mathius, Peter Karl and Petar Madjarac bonded through a mutual love of soccer. Now graduated, the group is once again tied together through the game, this time in a series of videos produced after a wide ranging tour of Central and South America.
Known as the “American Futbol Project,” the group (joined also by fellow Emerson alum Austin Ahlborg) traveled more than 7,000 miles in 2014, covering soccer-related stories in eight different countries. Their aim was to explore soccer’s impact on local cultures and how it related to a budding U.S. soccer culture.
Thanks to KICKTV, a media platform begun originally by Major League Soccer, some of the best American Futbol Project footage was released in a series of YouTube videos simultaneous to the United States’ recent hosting of Copa America Centenario.
“We quit our perfectly good jobs and we just went for it”
“Originally, that was the very simple idea: to just grab a camera, get in the car and drive,” said Mathius.
It was the first iteration of what the American Futbol Project would become, but it was still a long way from being a fully planned trip.
“We just kept tweaking it and working on it,” Mathius explained. Eventually, the notion formed to travel not merely through Brazil (hosts of the 2014 World Cup), but through many other countries, telling unique stories about the game.
“It was kind of born out of that sense that we wanted to get back together [after graduation],” said Mathius. “It was a time to get back together and go on another adventure.”
After careful planning and a successful fundraiser, the group set off on their journey. Mathius left his content marketing job in Boston, and the others left their places of employment as well.
“We quit our perfectly good jobs and we just went for it,” Mathius recalled. “But once we crossed the border into Tijuana, we switched back into that mode of the whole story and starting our journey.”
Traveling from Mexico through Central and South America and finishing in Brazil over a four month span, the crew captured a blend of pre-planned and improvised stories. Mathius noted how their ability to spot stories on the fly produced surprising results.
“Some of those ended up being among the strongest stories, the ones we found just kind of on the run.”
Mathius explained that an example of that was in Colombia, with the story of blind soccer:
Like much of the trip, the circumstances that led to finding the blind soccer story was an accurate encapsulation of the trip as a whole.
“I actually found the blind soccer guys really out of boredom,” Mathius said. “We were in Bogota after the first two legs of the trip, everyone was sort of recovering from some stomach bug or another, and we really didn’t have a story there.”
After recuperating, Mathius did some quick research on local events. It was only as a secondary reference that he discovered what eventually became another soccer story:
I randomly came across this guy’s blog about bike tours in Bogota, and he had a little mention of a blind team that plays in Parque Nacional. I looked up the park and realized it was down the street.
As it turned out, the blind soccer team offered the American outsiders a warm welcome.
“They were immediately welcoming,” said Mathius. “We filmed the practice right then and there and then set up an interview with Luis and his son at their family home across Bogota.”
For Mathius, it also spoke to a theme that was prevalent throughout their journey:
It was just amazing the reception we would get. As four guys who had never done anything like this, most people would be in their right mind to just tell us ‘we don’t know who you are, sorry.’ But everybody pretty much said yes, and I think that’s just because they kind of related to our story. I think they thought it was cool that there were these four Americans coming down to profile them. People were excited that we were excited.
“It’s kind of odd and very fortuitous”
When the trip was over, the four members of the American Futbol Project began organizing the footage, but went their separate ways (the group all live in different cities).
The problem, at that point, was what would become of their lengthy work. The original concept was to produce a full length documentary.
Even at that time, Karl recalled how he envisioned a different approach, emulating the format that the videos have subsequently taken at KICK.
“I had always thought that it should come out as a web series, because of the way we did it,” Karl said. “We went to all these separate countries and shot these stories.”
The problem was that for more than a year, the right video platform hadn’t revealed itself. The danger was that the many stories gathered all across multiple continents would never be seen by a large audience.
But as fate would have it, the solution was right in front of Karl. Or, more accurately, behind his desk.
Working for MLS in a freelance capacity, Karl got to know some of the people at KICK (which was still owned by MLS at the time). Eventually, KICK was sold to Big Balls Media, which wanted to relaunch the KICKTV platform for a more knowledgeable American soccer audience.
For Ross Whittow-Williams, the chief content officer at KICK, the search was on for a video project that would showcase American soccer to an American audience produced by Americans. It didn’t take too long before he had his answer: American Futbol Project.
Whittow-Williams explained his discovery:
It’s kind of odd and very fortuitous. I was basically coming up and trying to conceive a format of the travel or journey format and I was on YouTube searching and I came across the American Futbol movie and started to watch it. I think I might’ve found it through a Kickstarter page, or something like that. But then I had no idea it was Pete. And then I saw it and it was Pete, who at the time was sitting behind me. Then we started talking.
And for Karl, it all fit perfectly when he was called in for an interview for a full-time role at KICK.
“I was looking for a full-time job and I inquired at KICK,” Karl said. “Ross was involved, and when I came in for an interview, I also kind of said to him ‘you know, I do also have this project,’ and he knew all about it.”
The videos, now out in their entirety, have been receiving positive feedback both in the comment section and from soccer personalities who have talked to Whittow-Williams.
“It’s had a different level of feedback from what we’re normally used to,” said Whittow-Williams. “It’s getting great critical reviews from people who know what they’re talking about.”
The project’s ultimate success, garnering acclaim as well as more than half a million views on YouTube, belies its very basic origin: a group of friends at Emerson. Their sense of adventure, coupled with their storytelling ability, led to a lasting work born out of a mutual love of soccer.
“It’s just a wonderful example of the soccer community in the States,” Whittow-Williams said. “It’s small but it’s just packed full of brilliant people.”