STONINGTON — In 1988, a group of Belgian soccer players was planning a trip to the United States and needed some opponents during their time here.
They ended up facing a Stonington High team that was one of the best in the school’s history finishing 19-1 losing in the Class M title game that season.
The squad featured one of the most dynamic players in the program’s history in Joe Ponte. He scored 28 goals and had 26 assists that season.
“They talked to my dad (Ed Cullen) and we agreed to host them,” said Jeff Cullen, a member of the 1988 team. “Our whole class welcomed them. And we went over there in 1989.”
Some players on both teams have stayed friends over the years.
“Everybody is friends with each other on Facebook,” Cullen said. “And we have stayed in touch.”
Cullen has stayed in close contact with Erik Van Olmen, who is now a coach with the Olvac amateur team, over the years.
And on Thursday night Cullen and Van Olmen watched as their sons played against each other on the Bears turf field.
“This is just a dream come true,” Van Olmen said. “We’ve kept in touch for 30 years. It’s so nice to see my own son, who is the goalie of the team, playing against Jeff’s son. The fact that we are still coming over here is incredible.”
Van Olmen estimates he has made 25 or so trips to Stonington since the 1988 season and has attended a number of Stonington class reunions.
Stonington traveled to Belgium last year and played an Olvac team. Players on Belgian squads are grouped according to their birth year. The players on this team were born in 2001. High schools do not have teams.
“Two summers ago our teams met in England and played there,” Cullen said. “We went to Belgium last summer and stayed in their houses. Now, they are back over here.”
The Olvac club has about 450 players in various age groups, Van Olmen said. The team plays about 35-40 games a year and won the cup for their league this year.
“They are a good team in Belgium,” Van Olmen said. “We are not a professional team, we are an amateur team, but we are one of the better amateur teams in Belgium.”
The current Olvac team arrived in New York on July 25 and spent three days there. The players are now staying with Stonington families during their time in town.
They have attended a Red Sox game and went to Block Island on Friday. Van Olmen will be playing in the Stonington alumni game on Saturday.
Thursday’s contest between the two teams was played with a high level of intensity and evenly matched. Stonington finished 19-1-1 last season and returns a solid core of players from that team.
The scoreless game eventually went to penalty kicks and the mood lightened with each try. Every player took a turn and even some of the coaches put a kick on goal. Stonington prevailed 9-7.
“I think the players here are more physical,” Van Olmen said. “They are stronger kids. They play all kinds of sports. Our kids only play soccer. But they (Stonington) play the game well.”
Belgium has a number of players in professional leagues in England, France,Spain, Italy and Germany.
Belgium, a country of just 11.5 million, finished third in the most recent World Cup. They reached the quarterfinals of the European championships in 2016.
Van Olmen said the United States, which did not qualify for the World Cup, might benefit from the involvement of more European coaches.
“You have the potential,” he said. “These kids have the passion. There must be other kids in the United States that have that soccer passion, too. I am quite sure you will find them.”
Cullen said the experience has been a special one.
“Going over there was just phenomenal,” Cullen said. “It’s good to see both sides.”
Van Olmen agreed.
“Every time I come here, it’s like coming home,” Van Olmen said. “I’ve been here like 25 times. You guys live in a very nice area and it only seems to get better.”