New York City's Corona Park was abuzz with the unmistakable energy of a World Cup Final on Sunday. It was a far cry from the pageantry and spectacle of Johannesburg’s Soccer City, cathedral to the world’s game that it is, but the site of the 1964 World’s Fair had an atmosphere all its own as Poland edged Jamaica on penalties to be crowned 'world champions' of the Big Apple’s bustling football scene.

“Soccer is the biggest sport in New York City, but a lot of people don’t know that,” Copa NYC organiser Spencer Dormitzer, a self-styled football philosopher, told “It’s a World Cup every day here on the City’s soccer fields, with a guy from Ghana passing to a Mexican, to a Brazilian or a Trinidadian. There are clubs going back to the 1920s and we want to show that urban soccer should be part of the identity of American soccer.”

The tournament began last year, thanks to the heavy lifting of Dormitzer and his partner Chris Noble, both of whom admit to being “transformed” at an early age by Pele’s farewell match for the New York Cosmos at the old Meadowlands Stadium. They hoped to show the diverse face and quality of New York City’s soccer community. Sixteen “national” teams were assembled, with players from or with traceable roots to the country they would represent. The tournament outlines the history of immigration to one of the world’s most diverse and cosmopolitan cities, and highlights its love affair with the beautiful game.

It has to be the best amateur tournament in America.

NYC Ireland's Connor Hunter on the Copa NYC

More than just a cheerful, homespun excuse for a block party, Copa NYC 2010 produced some magnificent football, in keeping with the city’s long-standing tradition of excellence at amateur level. While the MLS’ New York Red Bulls are on a mission to buy big international names like Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez, the Copa offered a taste of the grass roots, showcasing those talented lads who play the game because they love it. “It’s a brilliant thing, this tournament,” said Connor Hunter, striker for NYC Ireland and Lansdowne Bhoys in New York’s historic Cosmopolitan League. Working for a local construction company, the livewire from Belfast talks about sometimes “feeling it in the evenings,” in his legs before “going off to training anyway.”

The Irish, whose team president is TV football analyst Tommy Smith, finished runners-up in the inaugural competition and lost out to Jamaica 1-0 in the semi-finals this time, eventually taking third place. Emigrating from Northern Ireland in 2002, Hunter’s passion for New York City and its football – which he says is “a bit more technical than back home” – is unmistakable. “The tournament has captured the imagination of not just the Irish community here, but the Jamaican, the Polish as you can see...everyone. It has to be the best amateur tournament in America.”

Players from all the competing nations, across five continental zones, were on hand for the final, milling about and commiserating about what went wrong and what went right, sharing a beer and even a stealthy cigarette or two out of the sightlines of their coaches. More than 1000 fans climbed the small bleachers or ringed the pitch, many waving Polish flags and chanting “Polska,” for their boys, a number of them coming from Brooklyn-based outfit FC Polonia. Team Jamaica’s fans – resplendent in their cascading dreadlocks and full Rastafarian regalia – were less vocal, more critical and quietly grumbling. Jamaicans in New York City are accustomed to good football, even spoiled, with their all-Jamaican league up in the Bronx the stuff of local legend and lore.

Stars on the ball
The top two players on the field for the final were Jamaican sensation Dawayne Smith, top scorer at the inaugural tournament, and Polish striker Chris Karcz, who scored once and set up another in the 3-3 draw before slamming home the decisive penalty in the shoot-out.

Karcz, 27, a former stand-out at nearby Rutgers University, had brief spells with MLS outfits Chicago Fire and New York Red Bulls. Top scorer and player in the tournament, he was the obvious candidate to collect the magnificent silver Mayor’s Cup after the final whistle. It was handed over by one of New York City’s most famous adopted sons, Pele himself. “I think he gave me a hug, he touched my face,” said a breathless Karcz leaning on his trophy at the end of his big day, the crawl of traffic on the Van Wyck Expressway overhead a reminder of the city’s connection to the rest of the world. “I don’t think I’ll ever wash my face again.”

A defeated Jamaican had the final word, putting the two-week competition into perspective. “It brings people together, unifies them,” said Jamaica’s Smith, who hopes to land a job with Major League Soccer after finishing his course work in Sports Management. “Here in New York, you have a lot of immigrants who are far away from their home and the game does something miraculous in bringing them together, because it’s a universal language.”