Terre Haute North boys soccer players Nicola Baiguini and Esteban Tera Santos come from the world of soccer. Baiguni, from Italy, and Santos, from Spain, come from nations that eat, drink and breathe the sport 24/7.
As foreign exchange students, they came to a nation who is getting to love soccer, but the sport is not woven into the fabric of daily life like it is in Europe.
So far, though, both Patriots seem to be enjoying their American adventure — and they’re getting the job done on the pitch too.
Both players have three goals each, trailing Mason Meeks-Johnson’s total of seven goals for the Patriots’ team lead. Baiguini plays in the No. 10 playmaker role and he has five assists, second only to Will Anders total of six. Santos plays as a forward.
Baiguini is probably closer to the archetypical player from Europe who has played his whole life. He is a native of Lovere, in Lombardy in northern Italy, and he has played for the local club, Alto Sebino. Soccer is his first love.
“I’ve played soccer from when I was a child, it’s my favorite sport. There’s a big difference between here and there. I think here they’re more ready about the fitness to run. In Italy, it’s more about technique. It’s a big difference, but I’ve liked it here,” Baiguini said.
Santos, on the other hand, has a soccer background, but it’s not his primary sport. The Madrid native prefers a sport you can’t play at the high school level in Indiana.
“I don’t play soccer [in Spain], I play water polo. I did play soccer for six years when I was little and I changed to water polo, that’s the sport that I enjoy the most. I grew up playing soccer, I enjoy playing the sport and I could play it here,” Santos said.
Proving his water polo interest, when asked what club he supports in Madrid, he didn’t name world-famous Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid, he named his water polo club, IARA Antamira.
Apart from the culture shock of jetting off to a foreign land, there’s the similar shock of how different the structure of sports works on each continent.
Here, we have a disconnected ladder system. Traditionally, players in all sports progressed from middle school to high school to college to the pros and they fell out where their skill level dictated. In the last quarter-century, club sports have added an element, but for the most part, most kids still chart their athletic progress by where they fit in the school pecking order until they’re lucky enough to go pro.
In Europe (and South America), it’s completely different, it’s more of an internal ladder system. There are no school sports at all. Players in all sports join clubs at beginner age, many clubs locally-based like our high schools are here, and work their way up the ladder internally through their club. The most prosperous clubs have levels from the very youngest developmental stage all the way to the highest professional level.
“All of the sports here are inside the school. In Italy? It’s all outside the school,” Baiguini said.
World renowned soccer player Lionel Messi, for example, joined his local club in Argentina when he was 6 before he re-located to his future professional club, Barcelona, when he was 14.
Where North boys coach Tony Guevara has seen the difference is in the approach Baiguini has taken to setbacks on the field.
“In my coaching, I’ve always tried to start with constructive criticism and finish with something positive, but Nicola got my attention a bit,” Guevara said.
“At Bloomington South, he had a nice shot, but he missed. I told him it was a great shot and he said, ‘No, it wasn’t. I should have made it.’ I was like, ‘yes it was.’ After the game, he said he didn’t mean any disrespect, but the way he’s coached overseas, the coaches are on him. Overseas, they only get praise for the good things they do. I feel like we’re more cradled. We have to be uplifted and we don’t take criticism very well. That’s different for him,” Guevara said.
The same dynamic works in the interpersonal relationships between the players too.
“Nicola is very smart and reads the field really well. He’ll come over and tell me players should this or that. At first, he would point guys out, sometimes call them out. He didn’t do it to be mean, it’s the culture he was brought up in. I told him that’s not how it works here, the coach does that. He apologized for the way he acted, but he didn’t do anything wrong, it was the culture he grew up in. The boys respect him for that,” Guevara said.
North sophomore midfielder Jack Butwin concurred with Guevara’s assessment.
“They fit right in. Their style of play is different, but it works great. They’re very confident in themselves. The way Nicola can place the ball is amazing. He can put it wherever he wants,” Butwin said.
Both Baiguini and Santos were asked about the difference they’ve noticed. There’s been on-pitch things, but what both said they liked was the off-field aspect where their classmates can be more directly involved with their athletic journey.
“We play fast, but here they want to play faster than us, but you have to adapt,” Santos said. “The school and the friends being involved, it’s surprised me in a good way.”
Baiguini and Santos no doubt hope their American adventure is capped by a fun October postseason run.