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Gorges Classic becoming regional destination for soccer teams

The Gorges Classic began as a four-team soccer tournament when it was founded by Ibe Jonah in 2013. With nearly 40 teams signed up this year, it has become one of the largest adult soccer competitions on the East Coast.

Jonah originally started the event in Niagara Falls but he now directs two annual tournaments, one locally in late spring and another in Ithaca in the fall. This year’s Niagara Falls tournament begins April 28 and runs through April 30.

The games have found a home at Fort Niagara State Park after being held at Lewiston-Porter High School in the past. Jonah chose the location because it’s easily accessible from Canada and other states neighboring New York.

“I thought that Niagara Falls was a perfect location,” Jonah said. “I heard a lot about it and it was one of the first places in the U.S. I visited while in Canada, so I have an affinity with the Niagara Falls area.”

Jonah has always been a free spirit. One guided by his studies and the game of soccer.

Born in Nigeria, Jonah participated in a number of exchange programs to Europe and other parts of Africa throughout his youth.

He moved to Canada in 1989 by himself at the age of 22 and attended Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. In 1992 he continued his studies at Cornell University, where he earned a doctorate in development sociology.

Jonah has since settled in the Ithaca area and currently runs his nonprofit called Malite Ihunna Health, which provides access to basic health care for underserved communities in Africa and the Americas.

Tournament founder and director Ibe Jonah moved to North America from Nigeria at the age of 22. (Facebook.com)

The idea for a soccer competition came about after the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta closed in February 2010.

Jonah was involved in organizing its annual tournament and felt there was a hole created by the loss.

“I wanted to provide a forum where adult amateur athletes can engage in healthy and fun competition for wellness,” Jonah said, “while at the same time boost the upstate economy through increased tourism.”

While other comparable events are smaller or limited citywide tournaments, the Gorges Classic encourages teams from all over the Northeast to join.

There are squads from New York City, Boston, Baltimore and Philadelphia in this year’s field, as well as Canadian teams from Toronto, London and Windsor.

There are also individual players from Las Vegas, Washington and Wisconsin who are joining up with existing teams to play in one of the six brackets: men’s open (18 years and over), over 30, 40, 50, coed and women’s open.

“They hopefully plan to bring their own teams in the future,” Jonah said.

The three-day event isn’t just confined to the pitch, though. With a concert featuring local bands and a barbecue for players and managers, it’s more of a festival feel.

“What makes our tournament unique is that all the other ones are just for the players,” Jonah said. “They pay a lot of money, play and then nothing else. We do a number of extra things around Youngstown and Lewiston. We have a welcome concert and a party, music, beer and wine tasting … a lamb roast. We bring everybody together. That’s what makes us different and unique. Teams always come back and then spread the word to their local areas.”

Teams from New York City, Boston, Baltimore and Philadelphia, as well as Canadian teams from Toronto, London and Windsor are signed up for this year's tournament. (Twitter.com)

While more teams from out of state are signing up, it’s been tough for Jonah to convince teams from Buffalo to compete.

“I’ve contacted so many of them trying to get them to participate,” Jonah said. “I think they don’t see Niagara Falls as an attraction because they live there. We’re not trying to impede on Buffalo’s leagues and organizations … but I think it would be advantageous for them to play teams and opposition from all over the region.”

Tournament proceeds usually benefit Jonah’s nonprofit organization. This year’s proceeds will be donated to Brazilian soccer club Associação Chapecoense de Futebol, whose plane crashed on Nov. 28 in Columbia. Seventy-one of the 77 people on board died.

“Soccer fans and players are united by the passion of the game,” Jonah said. “What affects one affects all of us. Soccer fans and teams all over the world have rallied to help them. We thought it was appropriate to be involved in that.”

The game of soccer has always been a part of Jonah’s life. He’s been the president of the Ithaca United Soccer Club for more than a year now and continues to play from time to time.

He’s also assisted with a Western New York team that went to Las Vegas to play in the King Cup, the largest adult men’s soccer tournament in the U.S. with more than 200 teams from across the country and around the globe competing in eight different age brackets. Jonah hopes one day the Gorges Classic can become the King Cup of the East.

“I’m just passionate about soccer,” Jonah said. “I thought it was important to have something similar. It brings the two things I love together: Western New York and soccer.”

The Gorges Classic, which starts on April 28, is played at Fort Niagara State Park on the fields numbered 1-18. (GorgesClassic.com)

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