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Viewpoint Chico Chacurian lived a beautiful life in the beautiful game

March 1, 2019

When he was 9, Chico Chacurian spent sunup to sundown playing in canvas shoes tied together with straw and a rubber ball that passed as a soccer ball. Born to Armenian immigrants, there was little privilege in the Cordoba province of Argentina in the early 1930s.

When he was 90, Chico would still be out there playing the game — his beloved game — on a field named in his honor at Short Beach Park in the Lordship section of Stratford. Everyone agreed it was a privilege to watch a nonagenarian execute with skill and precision.

As they gather Friday night at Bessemer Center Social Hall in Bridgeport to celebrate a life that ended Feb. 15 — one week shy of Chico’s 95th birthday — a long list of family, friends and admirers will arrived at the same beautiful conclusion.

Efrain Chacurian — Chico — was a force of nature.

“A phenomenon,” Rich Diedrichsen said. “In the eyes of the soccer community in Connecticut, Chico was soccer. He started out and never stopped helping people with the game.”

“He would light up a room,” Tom Gorman said. “We would play at Goooal Sports in Stratford and when he walked in the door he was like a rock star.”

Seven decades ago, Chacurian was among the elite players in the United States. He earned four caps with the U.S. national team, scored a goal against Haiti in a 1954 FIFA World Cup qualifier. Among the few regrets in a life extraordinarily lived was missing his chance to play in USA’s 1-0 1950 World Cup victory over England, the greatest upset in soccer history. He had returned to visit his family and play in Argentina. He didn’t know he was on the list of U.S. Soccer Federation’s potential World Cup players. Chico decided his adopted land was where belonged, but by the time he returned to America it was too late.

He didn’t miss much else. He married Florence, the love of his life, and would be married more than 60 years. He played. He coached. You need Chico for a camp or a demonstration? He was there. Diedrichsen, Gorman, Chris Zeiser, Bob Dikranian, they all say the same. Chico didn’t want any money when he helped with the kids. Not a dime. He was a watchmaker who became a lithographer. He spoke Spanish, English, Turkish, Armenian and, always, he spoke soccer.

“About a year ago, when he was in the nursing home, they went to visit the field named after him,” Dikranian said. “The nurses took six-seven other patients. There was a little booth set up with donuts and water.”

Forget the donuts.

“Chico couldn’t wait to get on the field,” Dikranian said. “So I get in goal. He’s on the 12-yard marker. He kept putting balls in the corner. Finally, I go, ‘Chico, I thought we were friends?’ ”

“Of course, we are,” Chacurian answered. “Why?”

“You keep scoring and embarrassing me.”

The two burst into laughter.

Chacurian coached for Dikranian, who Diedrichsen said was like a son to Chico, at Southern Connecticut. He coached the freshmen at Yale to an undefeated season, even beating the varsity. He moved up to help coach the Yale men and women. He went on to coach at Bridgeport, later becoming head coach. He won a handful of titles as coach of the Bridgeport Vasco da Gama club.

Zeiser said Chico talked about scoring a goal in Berlin, Germany and getting chased out of the stadium. And he said, while at Yale, Chico said he was encountered by a young tryout who told him she couldn’t make it the following weekend. She had to go to L.A. It was Jodie Foster. You live for a century, there are legends.

The fact is he was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1992. Chacurian was only 15 when he signed with the Racing Club and he played there in the Argentine First Division from 1939 to 1947 before leaving for America. Dikranian was a kid in Queens and he remembers his dad taking to watch Chacurian play for the New York Armenians. After junior soccer games, Dikranian and his buddies would stick around and to try to find Chico when he played for New York Swiss.

“I went to school at Bridgeport and little did I know he had moved to Lordship, Connecticut,” said Dikranian, who played with Chacurian for Bridgeport Soccer Club when his college season was over. “He was in his 40s, a little past his prime, but he had this great understanding and flawless technique.”

In his 40s? Chico was just warming up.

Dikranian and Chacurian would work together with the Connecticut Junior Soccer Association and Olympic Development Program. Chico did a lot of regional work for U.S. Soccer Federation. The two and Dikranian’s brother Haig started the Victory Soccer School.

“When I was a kid I admired him as a player,” Dikranian said. “Later, as I got to know him, I admired him as a man. As a partner, he was honest and trustworthy. Even with all that talent, he was a regular guy. Great sense of humor. Didn’t praise himself or put his nose up.”

No wonder they held a benefit in the fall to recognize Chico and help with expenses of the nursing home. Chico got up and kicked the ball around. Of course he did.

“At the Victory Soccer Camp, every Thursday we’d used to have a shooting demonstration,” Dikranian said.

Whether it was Victory or another camp or practice, inevitably there would be contests. Chico would put on shows they still talk about.

“Goalies would be mortified,” Diedrichsen said. “He had a rocket shot and could makes balls spin and curve.”

“He had a dynamite left foot,” Dikranian said. “If the goalkeepers would come out to cut down the angle, Chico would loft and spin it in the corners.”

Brilliance that needed no brag. You had to nudge him to talk about his exploits. The Stratford Coaches Club, which plays each Tuesday, is a common thread among these men. Gorman has been the club president. Zeiser, a club member, coached Stratford travel teams for years. Diedrichsen, former long-time Bunnell High coach, and Chico worked for years with kids on Short Beach.

“One night about 25 years ago, we’re playing and he just showed up,” Zeiser said. “He sat there in a little foldup chair. He said do you mind if I join in? This old guy. Well, he was absolutely amazing. We’re like holy s… He kept coming. Finally, we asked him, ‘Dude who are you?’ ”

In high school, Diedrichsen had a summer job at the Lordship School playground with the rec department. Chico’s three daughters, Janet, Louise and Nancy, attended. The youngest was especially proud of their dad. In those days, soccer was nonexistent in Stratford. Diedrichsen would watch games in Bridgeport with his future father-in-law. Chico played.

In his 20s, Diedrichsen got a soccer ball as a gift from his wife. He started working out with kids on summer evenings.

“Chico drove by one time,” said Diedrichsen, who lives about four blocks from the Chacurians. “He looked at me like do you know what you’re doing. I’m like not really. He’s coaching, playing, running a camp, but he said he would help me. No money. Nothing. It just grew from there. He just wanted to play. The kids loved him for that. Everyone did.”

Even in his later years, Diedrichsen said, Chico would do things on the field named after him that guys half his age couldn’t do.

“It was mystifying,” Diedrichsen said.

The field will be quiet on a winter Friday night. But over at Bessemer Hall, oh, they’ll be telling stories about a force a nature.

jeff.jacobs@hearstmedia.com; @jeffjacobs123