Gabriel Medina’s journey from international soccer to a UNF International Business Major

Bruce Hope, Sports Reporter

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He speaks Spanish, English, French, and Italian fluently. He also knows a little Japanese and Chinese. He is an avid footballer (soccer player), martial artist, and also a bodybuilder.  Like many young people all over the world, he dreamed of becoming a professional soccer player, a star on the pitch. His name is Gabriel Medina.  You would think he endorses Dos Equis beer because he really may be, “The most interesting man in the world.”

Gabriel Medina
Medina balanced school and soccer when he played overseas.

Gabriel is 5’8” tall, and despite his short stature, carries himself with an upright bearing. He wears glasses and has a mane of very curly brownish hair. He weighs about 155 pounds and is slim, but a wiry musculature is evident and demonstrates the time spent in the gym.  

He plays in a Sunday soccer league with a variety of players with varying skill levels; not playing on an organized team though, he consistently trains by himself, practicing the basics. Medina says he is obsessed with fundamentals – as all great athletes tend to be. He creates drills for himself, like dribbling the ball through extremely uneven surfaces such as a wooded area near his home. He also practices kicking the ball through a small window on his gazebo in order to maintain accuracy. Medina mentally reviews the games he plays in the Sunday league to keep that aspect of the game sharp.

His story begins in Cleveland, Ohio where he was born to a doctor and a teacher. His first three years of life were spent there before his family moved to his parents’ native Puerto Rico. Gabriel spent his formative years (15 of them) on the island, where his parents had more children and his life began to take shape. It was here that two of the three major physical pursuits of his life were born.

Gabriel trained in the martial arts.

“My dad was a big martial arts guy back in his day…he was an avid Bruce Lee fan. He was the one who got me into it.  It was because I suffered a lot of bullying when I was young. He said, ‘ I can’t put him in boxing or Kung-Fu, so I’ll put him in Aikido,’” Medina says.

Aikido is a Japanese martial art which focuses on the redirection of your opponent’s energy in coordination with joint manipulation techniques and throws to disable an attacker. It is the perfect style for someone like Gabriel, who does not demonstrate an aggressive personality. He has trained in this style for over ten years now.

It was during that time that Medina discovered his love for soccer.

“I had two best friends from elementary and both played soccer and they were good. So that kind of got me into it,” Medina said. “One day I was in P.E. (physical education) class and normally our P.E. class was indoor soccer because all the guys were on the team, except me. So, in a moment it was kind of like this epiphany thing…and at that moment, I kind of decided, this is what I want to do.”

From there, he jumped headfirst into his passion for the game. He trained every day and sought to become a professional footballer.

According to Gabriel, he never picked up the ball and just had things happen magically, but had a natural affinity for learning the game and it didn’t take long for him to pick things up.  Even still, it took a lot of hard work to develop the skill level he craved and he put in the time.

Gabriel got better and better and was offered an opportunity to play soccer at Penn State-Allegheny.  He played there and had some success. From there, his father’s friend had a son who played for a club in Mexico, who suggested that he investigate trying to get onto the same team. Medina traveled to Mexico but was not able to make a roster.

“It didn’t work out because I wasn’t Mexican and apparently, they have these certain rules in the league there…regulations.  They could only have like three guys [who weren’t Mexican] or something like that; I was like, late to the party as they say,” Gabriel said of the Mexican experience.

From there the odyssey continued, as he hooked up with a soccer trainer who had worked with the same player whose father had suggested Mexico. After some time, the trainer suggested that they travel to another soccer crazed country, Spain.

Gabriel arrived there and not long after, suffered a major injury when he tore a ligament in his hip. He returned to Puerto Rico, where he rehabbed for over a year before finding another soccer academy in Spain and returned to Europe for another chance. That also was unsuccessful as he was ostracized for not being Spanish and just wasn’t a fit for the team there. He again headed back to Puerto Rico. Medina began playing for a team there in San Juan, contributing to a championship run in the first division of the island’s league.

Once that was over, Gabriel and his father found the ISM Perugia, another soccer academy, this time in Italy. By now Gabriel was quite the frequent flyer and found himself crossing the Atlantic on yet another effort to fulfill his dreams of becoming a professional on the pitch.

The ISM Perugia is located in Perugia, Italy, in the central part of the country, just about 164 kilometers (102 miles) north of Rome. The students of the academy do not reside in dormitories (Italian universities don’t have them), but in apartment-like domiciles off of the main campus.

The first part of the day is morning-long Italian classes. Following these classes is a lunch break followed by training (soccer practice). Training lasts about one and a half hours during the afternoon. Following training, the time belongs to each person.

“Some of the guys, they would just go out trying to find a party…it really just depended on the individual. The main thing is, going to class in the morning and training in the afternoon,” Medina said.

Culturally, Gabriel says that he felt right at home.  

“I honestly felt like I was in Puerto Rico, just a difference in language and food. The social dynamics in Italy, at least in Perugia, between the people are very similar to those in Puerto Rico. Everyone is very nice and really warm,” Medina said.

This time he made it through an entire year at the ISM. Medina learned the strategic and tactical differences between the American game and the European style.

“One of the key things that I learned is to wait on the mistake of the opponent…you just wait and when they make a mistake you exploit it,” Medina said.  This attitude, he also explains, is in marked contrast to the American attitude of constant aggression and physicality.

Following his time in Italy, where he learned a lot but didn’t have an opportunity to further his dreams of becoming a professional footballer, Medina returned to Florida,where his mother and brothers had now taken up residence. Medina took some time to figure what to do and then he decided to return to school and finish his degree.

Medina now studies International Business at the University of North Florida. He chose UNF because, ironically, he is not a big fan of the university environment. 

“Just the idea of being constrained constantly…I chose UNF because I’m with my family; I can breathe after being in the university environment,” Medina said.

Medina still has not given up his passion for futbol. He made a final run at his professional dreams, attending an open tryout for the Jacksonville Armada, the local NASL franchise. He did not make the cut and as of now, he is no longer pursuing becoming a professional player.

“I just decided to take a break from this notion of constantly trying to make it…if something happens, something surges, then yeah.  If not, then stay with the family and do what I gotta do.”

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