U.S. WNT Assistant Bret Hall Recalls the Impact of an Outreach Trip to Africa Nearly 30 Years Ago
U.S. assistant coach Bret Hall has done a fantastic job coaching the defenders since joining head coach Greg Ryan’s staff in 2005. In fact, the USA has allowed just nine goals in the last 29 matches, and much of that credit goes to Hall, who of course is quick to deflect all of the credit back to the players. One thing he can’t shrug off, though, is a unique accomplishment he achieved when Jimmy Carter was President, one that sets him apart from any other American soccer player.
U.S. Women’s National Team assistant coach Bret Hall played 15 years of professional soccer in the United States, but he never earned a cap for the U.S. Men’s National Team.
“I wasn’t good enough,” says the jovial Hall, who was known as a hard man – and for good reason - during his days in the NASL with the Chicago Sting and indoors with the Cleveland Force and Chicago Power, among others.
Hall, however, claims a unique distinction in the world of international soccer. He is the only American ever to play for the National Team of Lesotho.
That’s right, Lesotho, a small African country slightly smaller than the state of Maryland located within the borders of South Africa. The enclave has a population of just over two million.
Rewind to the summer of 1978 when Hall, heading into his junior year at Wheaton College, was asked to play for a team made up of collegiate players organized by a group called Sports Ambassadors. The Christian organization was embarking on a “friendship” tour of Africa with assistance from the U.S. State Department.
Six weeks, eight countries, 18 games? Why not! Hall signed up.
A long-time Chicago resident who was born in upstate New York, Hall embarked on a trip of a lifetime that took him first to Morocco, then to Nigeria, followed by a trip down to Botswana, on to South Africa, then to Lesotho and Swaziland. The team then traveled north to Kenya and finished with a tourist stop in Israel.
“Africans are some of the friendliest people you will ever meet,” said Hall, who turned 50 just last week, but remembers his trip of 28 years ago like it was yesterday. “One of the best things about soccer is getting to go to other countries and meet people. I’d been overseas before going to Africa, but to see so many places on one trip was an amazing experience. At such a young age, I got to learn about new places and that there is a whole world out there outside of America. We would meet the players we played against and they would take us to wherever they lived. Even the poorest people there would share everything they had with you.”
While in Lesotho, Hall’s team played matches in the capital of Maseru against a local professional club and the national team. Like the national team, Hall’s squad was training at the National Stadium, which Hall describes as resembling “an old, but really nice high school facility.”
After his training, Hall would go out and watch the national team practice. One day, they asked him to join in and he trained with the team.
“I was nuts back then and just loved playing every day,” said Hall. “They spoke good English and when they asked me to train, I grabbed my cleats.”
He befriended the head coach, whose name has escaped him over the years, but who had admired Hall’s play when the two teams had met earlier in the week. With a scrimmage against the local pro club coming up later in the week, the coach asked Hall if he would like to play with Lesotho.
“My coach was all for it, so I said, sure, I’d love to play!” said Hall, who played all 90 minutes in the center midfield. “It certainly jibed with the theme of the friendship tour so I was honored to be a part of that. I remember I had to come off the field for a little bit because I jumped for a head ball and got kicked in the head when this guy did a bicycle kick. I kind of torpedoed into it and basically ran my head into his foot. They were all helping me up, but I had to sit out for a few minutes before I felt normal enough to go back in.”
The match ended 0-0, but for Hall, the score was secondary to the experience.
“I just didn’t want to mess up, but they didn’t let me and they wouldn’t care anyway if I did,” said the one-time Lesotho midfielder. “The guys were very nice about passing me the ball, making me feel comfortable and including me in the game. There weren’t a lot of fans at the game, but everyone knew that an American was playing with Lesotho. Everyone was so friendly because I had already played against both teams. We took about a million pictures afterwards. They were just nice guys. It was more of a friendship thing than a soccer thing. After the game the coach said ‘You have one cap for Lesotho!’”
Hall remembers pulling on the blue and black jersey, and playing on a field that was flat, but hard, with grass sparse at the 5,000-seat stadium. Lesotho is a country of mostly highlands with plateaus, hills, and mountains and the beauty of the country reminded him an old-time Western movie.
“Lesotho had a mountainous feel, but Swaziland was right out of a Tarzan movie, all jungle,” said Hall, who notes that the team did not exactly travel in the lap of luxury. “We stayed at a place in Kaduna, Nigeria, that didn’t have windows. During the night, from somewhere real close you could hear a big cat growl. I don’t know if it was a lion or a leopard, but the guys were all sleeping together in the middle of the floor ready to grab broomsticks if we got attacked.”
Apparently, broomsticks were a second line of defense.
“There was a little guy with a bow and arrow sleeping outside on a mat in case animals did come,” said Hall. “Our in-country flights were also an adventure. We flew Air Botswana once. They had three planes in their fleet until one crashed. Then they were down to two.”
Hall would return from Africa and play his final season at Wheaton before turning pro and embarking on his decade-and-a-half pro career, but to this day, his three biggest highlights from the trip are visiting Israel, playing for Lesotho, and a (way too) close encounter with a lion.
“They took us to a game reserve in Botswana where they had captured these three lions in the wild and were going to release them into reserve,” said Hall. “They put the three in a holding pen, sort of like a grassy area with a big tennis fence around them, and you could get so close that you could definitely see why they were the Kings of the Jungle. They were so powerful and menacing and afraid of nothing.”
One of the lions sauntered up to where Hall was standing and decided to scratch himself against the fence. For reasons Hall still can’t explain, he decided to reach through the fence and help the lion get a good scratch.
“I reached through the fence like a complete moron,” said Hall. “I would never do that now, but I was young and stupid, and grabbed a hold of its mane. It was very coarse, but as soon as he felt me, he wheeled around growled and swatted at me. I ran. It scared the daylights out of me, but at least I can always say I grabbed a live lion by the mane.”
As the game wardens with tranquilizer guns relaxed their grips on their triggers, Hall was able to continue his adventure without becoming a lion appetizer.
Lesotho is currently ranked 158th in the world by FIFA out of 198 countries, and you’d like to think they’d be in the 160s if it wasn’t for the contribution of a stocky American almost 30 years ago, but Hall knows that the soccer made the smallest and least important impact on everyone involved.
“The best thing about the trip was not the soccer, it was meeting people that reach out to you and being a good representative of your country and where you come from,” said Hall “That is way more important than being a good soccer player.”