By Tris Wykes
Octopus Athletics

Unexpected gifts can be the best kind. So Lebanon High boys soccer coach Rob Johnstone was delighted last winter with the unexpected arrival of transfer student Emmanuel Bello.

Lebanon High’s Emmanuel Bello competes in the finals of a ball juggling contest during the Raiders’ Aug. 31 skills practice. Bello, 17, grew up in London and is expected to give his new team a significant boost.

The stocky player came from East London, and that’s not some obscure town in northern Vermont. No that’s the London, as in England’s capital and a locale absolutely mad for soccer, or as Bello calls it, football.

Whatever you call the sport, you don’t need to be overly familiar with it to quickly realize Bello’s skills are better than those of the average American player. Although the Raiders are only conducting skills practices at the moment, the 17-year old displays an easy touch on the ball.

“He doesn’t even think about it; it’s muscle memory from thousand of hours,” said Johnstone, whose 16-3 team lost in the NHIAA Division II finals last fall. “He’s a strong kid and a physical presence.”

Bello said toughness was necessary, not only when he suited up in England’s soccer academy system, but in virtually any pickup game that materialized.

“It’s a bit more physical and selfish in London,” he said. “These guys (in Lebanon), they like to run and pass.”

Bello said he sees himself as a playmaking midfielder, but Johnstone expects it will take time for the son of Nigerian parents to learn the Raiders’ somewhat unusual deployment. Bello’s also struggling with his fitness and all varsity players must run a 6-minute mile and hit various other marks at various distances.

For someone so talented, Bello has played surprisingly little soccer the past two years. He became disillusioned and walked away from his club, a move he said he now regrets. His family moved to Texas about a year ago, staying with an aunt there before his mother, Olufolake, landed a nursing job at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Emmanuel Bello leaps to head the ball during an Aug. 26 skills practice at Lebanon High. The senior transfer grew up in London and has shown notable skill during the Raiders’ workouts thus far.

“Making friends hasn’t been too hard, but feeling at home hasn’t been so easy,” Emmanuel Bello said, rubbing the palm of one hand over his short dreadlocks and down his forehead. “I’m happy to be here, though.”

Among those Raiders thrilled to have him is senior goalkeeper Ryan Tanski, who recalls the “buzz” surrounding Bello’s first appearance, which came during a winter futsal match at the CCBA’s Witherell Recreation Center.

“He’s fulfilled everything we could want from him so far,” Tanski said, noting that while a shooter’s hips usually reveal his intentions, that’s not so with Bello. “He changes the position of his body as he shoots and his finishing is immaculate.”

Johnstone said Bello, 5 feet 8 and 160 pounds, hasn’t looked out of place when he joins a regular pickup game at Hanover High filled with current and former college players. Perhaps most encouraging, said the 27th-year coach, is that the rising senior has handled his elders’ constructive criticism well.

“He’s rusty, but he’s had a ton of exposure to high-level soccer,” Johnstone said, noting Bello’s soft-spoken, humble nature.

“How those skills translate to a game when fitness and space are keys, that remains to be seen. But it’s exciting to think about coaching him because he’s such a nice kid.”

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