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Men’s Soccer: ND grad Lapira adjusts to playing in Norway

Greg Arbogast | Thursday, November 6, 2008

Settled in a log cabin on the top of a ski mountain surrounded by woods, rivers and bears, one might say that Louisiana native Joseph Lapira is a long way from home.

About 4,000 miles to be more specific.

After three record-setting seasons at Notre Dame that included winning the program’s first-ever Hermann Trophy in 2006, Lapira opted for the fjords of Norway over the fertile plains of America and Major League Soccer (MLS). Tagged as a top prospect for the MLS Superdraft, Lapira was put off by the MLS requirement that all players must sign at least a four-year contract.

“If you ask any player in the States if they want to play in MLS or Europe, they’d say Europe because that’s the center of football,” Lapira said. “I didn’t want to wait four years for a chance to come overseas.”

With that reasoning, Lapira was off to the other side of the pond by last January – although Norway wasn’t the original destination. Initially, Lapira received trials from several squads in Great Britain including Southhampton and Nottingham Forest of the English Championship League. Lapira also got a look from Scotland’s Aberdeen, who current Irish coach Bobby Clark played for from 1965-1982 while winning the 1980 Premier League Championship.

Lapira failed to receive a contract offer before the end of January, which marked the end of the transfer window for the British leagues. Consequently, if Lapira had signed a contract with a team in Great Britain, he would have been unable to play until the following season.

“My first few trials I wasn’t in the best shape, and that might have cost me a few opportunities,” Lapira said. “[After the Great Britain transfer window closed], the Scandanavian transfer window was still open, and that was ideal for me because I didn’t want to be without game experience for several months.”

A few weeks later, Lapira signed a one-year contract with Nybergsund of the Norwegian second division. Setting foot in Scandinavia for the first time, Lapira began his journey of European football and all that comes with it – culturally and from a footballing perspective.

Surrounded by new teammates and coaches who all speak an unfamiliar language, Lapira has made great efforts to improve his Norwegian. Hard at work since March, Lapira proclaimed himself just about fluent at listening to Norwegian but still unable to speak the language.

“It sounds like they’re singing when they talk,” Lapira said.

The former Irish striker has also had to adapt to a new set of coaches. After four years spent building strong relationships with head coach Clark and assistant coaches Jamie Clark and Chad Riley, Lapira has had his ups and downs gelling with his coaching staff at Nybergsund.

“It has helped me in terms of realizing how biased professional sports can be,” Lapira said. “My coach isn’t my favorite person in the world, to say the least. It kind of helps you to know that the best player isn’t always going to play because you’re not the one who makes all the decisions.”

But professional soccer in Norway does have its perks. The aforementioned log cabin on the ski mountain – paid for by the club – has put outdoor activities like hiking, fly fishing and skiing at Lapira’s doorstep.

In between all those outdoor activities, Lapira has still found time to do plenty of what he does best – scoring goals. Despite playing outside midfield instead of his natural striker position, Lapira has scored eight goals in 32 games, good for third on the club. That type of performance should lead to increased interest in Lapira when his contract ends this month, although the former Notre Dame striker said he isn’t concerned with that at the moment.

“I have an agent, and I think some stuff has come up, but I’ve told him that I don’t want to worry about that until the time is closer,” Lapira said. “I like to worry about what’s going on right now like getting my fitness up.”

But such words don’t mean Lapira isn’t interested in exploring new opportunities once the time is right. With the professed ultimate goal of playing in the English Premier League, Lapira recognizes that a few intermediate steps may still lie ahead. Lapira said that signing with a first-division Scandanavian team or non-EPL team in Great Britain are more realistic immediate goals.

But Lapira is confident, or more accurately, he said he knows he needs to be confident he will fulfill his goals if he wants to eventually compete against the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United.

“Fitness, patience, and confidence,” Lapira said when asked what the defining characteristics of a first-class footballer are. “Confidence is the most important of the three. Confidence can turn a bad player into a good player and a good player into a great player. If I can get my confidence under control as well as my fitness, I think I’ll be well on my way to achieving my goals.”