By Russell Stiger Jr.
Soccer isn’t a sport most Black kids in the United States stick with. But Kharlton Belmar did and rode it to the professional ranks.
Belmar, who plays forward, joined Sacramento Republic FC last season. He leads the team’s front line, with a primary charge of creating scoring opportunities for himself and teammates.
Belmar, 28, is the child of Grenadian internationals who instilled in him the culture of the sport the rest of the world knows as football. Growing up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, he often found himself the only Black kid playing at the Y.M.C.A. He idolized the ultra-creative Didier Drogba, a former African Footballer of the year, and Brazilian Ronaldinho.
“Saturday mornings were for soccer,” he said. “We would sit down on the couch, maybe before my games, but we would come home after and watch soccer on TV all day.”
Although not particularly popular among Black Americans, soccer is among the world’s most popular games, largely because it allows the 22 on-field players to express their creativity.
It is not, however, an oasis from racism. Dark-skinned players often face racist chants and comments from fans.
Belmar is no stranger to racism. “It’s something that we have grown up to almost accept,” he said. Growing up as one of few Black kids playing soccer, he said, “you hear you’re not really Black because you play soccer.”
The opportunity to express his creativity kept him in the game though. Belmar’s flair for the artistic isn’t confined to the field; he’s a lover of art and photography, which he gets from his mother.
“My mom actually is an artist,” Belmar said. “She went to art school in D.C. (but) had to step back from that when she had me.
“I think people who go far with photography are the people who see the world differently. See the real meaning behind certain things.”
Belmar’s on-field creativity is inspired by watching players such as Ronaldinho, Leonel Messi and other greats. It was on display in a 2-0 preseason matchup against Salt Lake City FC on April 30. Despite a frustrating day on the pitch, Belmar had a blink-and-you-missed-it moment of brilliance — a simple one-touch heel pass that unlocked the Monarchs’ suffocating defense.
Last season was difficult for professional sports teams, including Republic FC. Between COVID-19 pausing the season after three games before keeping fans out of the stands, then dealing with the fallout of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a police officer, Belmar said it was hard for many around him to focus. Republic FC’s season ended with a 1-0 playoff loss to Phoenix Rising.
Belmar personally struggled after the season restarted, often coming off the bench. But he finished with a solid one goal and four assists in 13 matches, including nine starts.
This season should be a big one for Belmar on and off the pitch. He feels his game is better after getting his first taste of international competition as a member of the Grenadian national team. National teams are preparing for the 2022 World Cup, and in March, Grenada defeated El Salvador and the U.S Virgin Islands in regional qualifiers. The next set of matches comes June 4 and June 9, where Grenada will face Antigua and Barbuda, then Montserrat respectively.
“It was an extremely humbling moment for me to finally get there and play with those guys,” Belmar said. “They have brought a lot of pride and joy to the country. They have accomplished a lot.”
“It’s great for him to get called up for his country and represent your country,” said Republic head coach Mark Briggs. “I think it was a fantastic experience. He came back with his chest puffed out, he feels good.”
Off the field, Belmar said Republic FC intends to make an impact on the Black community through mentoring programs and other outreach.
“This club has already been active in the community, but … we have a chance to reach a lot of diverse communities” he said. “This is one of the best cities I have been in in my career, and I have been to a few.”
Sacramento Republic won their opening match at Los Angeles, and their home opener with about 2,300 fans at Heart Health Park against Las Vegas. Next the Republic travel to Orange County to play Orange County SC.