Fatherly influence leads Higuaín, Warzycha to careers in professional soccer
A father’s influence on his son’s life, especially when it comes to sports, can be monumental. For example, I doubt I’d be writing about soccer had my father not taken a few friends and me to a United States Under-23 Olympic Qualifier against Honduras in Nashville, Tenn. when I was in high school. The supporters atmosphere I experienced both among U.S. fans and the large Honduran contingent at the match ignited a passion for the sport that would soon turn into a career path. A few of the players in that match -- Eddie Gaven, Sacha Kljestan and Dax McCarty -- would later become some of my favorite players.
For a duo of Crew players, their fathers’ love of soccer was passed down to them from a very early age.
Raised by professional soccer legends in their respective home countries, it’s unlikely that Federico Higuaín and Konrad Warzycha ever “chose” to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. Rather, soccer chose them.
Growing up in an environment that included tagging along with their fathers to training sessions, attending matches and making a home in whichever corner of the world a career in soccer took their families, it was hard for the young Higuaín and Warzycha not to fall in love with the game.
“When you're that little, you don't realize what you're living,” Higuaín says through a translator. “As you start growing older, you start getting used to the whole atmosphere and being the son of a soccer player. You see everything in a very natural way because you've grown used to it.”
Adds Konrad Warzycha: “It was a lot of moving to different countries, adjusting to the languages and stuff like that. Overall, I really enjoyed it: the traveling and having my dad play, going to games and growing up around soccer.
“I loved soccer from when I was little. I always had a soccer ball, kicking it around in the yard with my brother. Being around the game, I loved that part of it. It was a lot of fun for me.”
Immersed in the sport from the early days of childhood, Higuaín and Warzycha developed an adoration and respect for the game that the typical child doesn’t quite receive. While most children dream of becoming firefighters or doctors, Higuaín and Warzycha hardly considered anything else in their youth.
Though, their fathers never pushed soccer on them.
“Everyone in the family -- not only me and [Argentine National Team forward] Gonzalo, but my two other brothers – we were born into soccer,” Higuaín says. “We're all very passionate about it.”
“It was never an obligation to be a soccer player. There was a lot of freedom, and that's what we ended up choosing.”
Warzycha's father and Crew Head Coach Robert Warzycha adds: “I didn't have to [make an effort to make soccer a part of Konrad's life]. If you go to my house, soccer balls are everywhere. We probably have more soccer balls than anyone else, for sure. He grew up with soccer. He likes it, and I didn't have to do anything special to make him like it.”
For the two Crew players, their fathers’ careers have largely shaped their current lives as professionals.
BACK HOME IN COLUMBUS
Capped 47 times for the Polish National Team, Robert Warzycha’s playing career took him to various clubs in his home country, Everton FC in the English Premier League and to Hungarian sides Pésci Mecsek and Budapest Hondvéd FC before signing on as the Crew’s first Discovery Signing in Major League Soccer’s inaugural season in 1996.
No matter where his career placed him, Warzycha’s family was along for every twist and turn of the ride for better or worse.
“I think it was great to have your family with you, having your kids spend time with you on the field,” Warzycha recalls his playing career.
The Crew boss continues: “[Moving around the world] was not difficult for me, but I think it was hard for the kids. They had to go to different schools and everything. The worst part I think is that they made friends that they were very close to, and then they had to leave their friends and go to a different country and make other friends. I think that was very hard for them.”
Spending his formative years of childhood in Liverpool during his father’s stint at Everton, Konrad Warzycha became exposed to the religion-like English football culture.
“Over in Europe, everyone plays,” the 24-year-old midfielder explains. “In England, you start school over there when you're four years old. I went to first grade there, and recess and stuff like that would always be soccer.
“[In Europe] everything is soccer, unlike here. I loved that part of it. I never played anything else, it was always soccer.”
After two seasons in Hungary, Robert Warzycha took a chance moving halfway across the world to join a Columbus Crew side in its first-ever season. The Columbus community was vastly different from the soccer-crazed culture the Warzycha family had experienced in Europe.
In the United States, pick-up soccer was less accessible for children. Instead, the focus was on recreation and participation.
“When we lived in Poland, Hungary and England, the field was right next to the house. Another one would be close by,” Robert Warzycha explains.
“Here, you have to drive somewhere and it was a longer distance. That was different. You can't just pick up the ball and walk over to the field and stay there all day. Instead, you have to have your parents drive you there for an hour or so and come back home.”
But in Columbus, there was an abundance of youth soccer leagues following the success of the 1994 FIFA World Cup hosted on American soil. For the first time in his life, an eight-year-old Konrad Warzycha experienced organized soccer for himself.
“Coming here, actually I'd never played on an organized soccer team or anything,” Konrad Warzycha recalls. “[In Europe], it was always just pick-up with the neighborhood kids. When we got here, I joined the rec league. Everyone did it, all my friends. Even kids I'm friends with now, I remember back to U-8 or U-9 leagues, playing rec together.
“It was different, but it was something cool to see: that soccer was big in a different way here.“
As he grew up, Konrad Warzycha excelled at the sport in which his father made a career. A standout at Dublin Jerome High School, the midfielder earned a scholarship to The Ohio State University nearby. After helping the Buckeyes to an appearance in the NCAA College Cup Final in his freshman year, Warzycha began to take the sport he loved more seriously. By his junior year, he had earned All-Big Ten Second Team honors. A year later, he was named to the All-Big Ten First Team and earned an invite to the MLS Scouting Combine.
Warzycha was one step closer to realizing the dream his father had lived before him of becoming a professional soccer player. Robert Warzycha saw a new fire in his son.
“If you have the talent, you should pursue that talent,” the Crew Head Coach says of his son’s desire for soccer. “If you have the talent to be a pro soccer player, just go for it. Everybody has a talent, they just have to find it. He found it in soccer.
“That's what he wanted to do, and that's fine. If you want to be a writer or a doctor, you follow your dream. His dream was to be a soccer player.”
With counsel nearby, Konrad Warzycha didn’t shy away from seeking advice from his father in pursuing a career in MLS.
“He helped me out to get toward that goal with tips, watching my games, advice with what to do and how to get better,” Warzycha said of his father.
Having played 18 years of professional soccer across four different countries – and now an MLS Head Coach – who better to seek advice from than his own father?
“I told him it wouldn't be an easy life. It's not that easy. Sometimes it will be all upside down,” Robert Warzycha says. “It's like that everywhere, you have to work hard to be good.
“But that's the easiest part: to work hard. I think you have to respect the game and respect people.”
In January 2011, Konrad Warzycha was drafted 46th overall in the 2011 MLS Superdraft by Sporting Kansas City – two picks before the Crew’s third-round selection. The midfielder was sidelined after knee surgery in his rookie campaign, but returned to action in 2012 to help Sporting win the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
The following offseason, Kansas City released Warzycha. After a trial in Poland, Warzycha was invited to the Crew’s 2013 preseason camp in Florida as a trialist.
While the invite certainly raised eyebrows among the Black & Gold faithful, Warzycha earned a spot on the Crew’s roster with his physical play and all-too-familiar precision in guiding the Columbus midfield during preseason friendlies.
The former Buckeye made a seamless transition into the team, despite having his father as the coach.
“When you step inside the lines, it's not father-son; it's player-coach,” the younger Warzycha says. “It's nothing weird, nothing out of the ordinary. He talks to me just like he talks to any other player.”
The two’s relationship on the field hasn’t affected their relationship at home, however. Konrad and Robert Warzycha still maintain a healthy father-son relationship away from the pitch.
“We're not talking about soccer as much as we used to,” the Head Coach explains. “We'll have comments here or there, but it's a much more professional environment [around the club] than anywhere else. But I don't think much has changed, he's still my kid when he goes home.”
His son echoes: “If something needs to be said, it's not like we won't talk about it at home or anything. It's not like soccer is the only thing we talk about. We definitely have a normal family relationship.
“I'm definitely closer to him than any of the other players, but it's still the same conversations at home as it was before.”
Having spent the entirety of his 24 years soaking in the atmosphere of professional soccer, Konrad Warzycha’s passion for the sport has yet to waver. Like his father before him, his love for soccer doesn’t seem to be fading any time soon.
“A lot of kids get burnt out being around one sport all the time, the love dies down. But for me, it's always been there. It's still here.
“I still love the game, and can't see myself ever not playing soccer – even when I’m 50.”
THREE GENERATIONS OF "PIPA"
A staple in the 1980s for Argentine giants Boca Juniors and River Plate among others, Jorge Higuaín became known around his native country a “El Pipa” for his prowess in central defense.
Surrounded by the sport since he was a toddler, Federico Higuaín always knew he wanted to be a professional one day. Higuaín learned what a career in the sport would entail by watching his father throughout his youth.
“Since very little, I wanted to be a professional,” the Crew forward recalls. “My father gave me a lot of advice, a lot of advice. Advice regarding how to behave with your club, how to behave with your teammates, how to behave within the organization and then also inside the field to trust yourself and put the product you're learning on the field.”
Despite building a name for himself as a defender, two of Jorge Higuaín’s sons would go onto to become well-known attacking players.
So what made Federico Higuaín and his brother Gonzalo want to pursue a career as a playmaker – the position his father worked to stop during his playing days?
“I don't know!” Higuaín says with a laugh in a rare few words of English.
He continues through a translator: “My dad was a defender, but Gonzalo and myself are much more technical players. Playing in the front, that's just kind of the way it happened.”
Much like his father bounced around from Argentine clubs Nueva Chicago, Gimnasia de la Plata, San Lorenzo, Boca Juniors, River Plate, Banfield and French side Stade Brestois 29, Federico Higuaín has made his mark in professional soccer. After coming up through the River Plate Academy system, Federico Higuaín spent time with Nueva Chicago, Besiktas (Turkey), Club América (Mexico), Independiente, Godoy Cruz, and Santa Fe de Colon before signing with the Crew in July 2012 to become the club’s third Designated Player in history.
Having adopted his father’s nickname “Pipa” through his career, Higuaín has become a fan favorite for his surgical passing and finishing touch as the Crew’s midfield maestro. The Argentine made such an impression, he earned the 2012 MLS Newcomer of the Year award for his five goals and seven assists in just 13 League appearances.
Now with two children of his own, Higuaín ponders the possibility of a third-generation “Pipa.”
“My father, my brother and I had always talked about [carrying on the nickname],” he explains. “Now that I have my kids, we talk about maybe there will be a third generation of the Higuaín name in soccer.”
Just like his own childhood, Higuaín’s offspring have had the influence of soccer in their lives since birth.
“If you go to my house right now, you're going to find six or seven soccer balls in all sizes lying around the house,” he says. “My youngest son learned to walk and kick the ball at the same time.”
Through all the traveling and the rollercoaster that comes with a playing career, Higuaín credits his family with keeping him sane despite his hectic profession.
“I have two wonderful kids,” he says. “My oldest, who has traveled the most, has been wonderful in adapting to the different places.
“My wife has been a great support as well. I owe a lot of my happiness here to both my kids and my wife.”