Esports a green field for soccer pro Larry Cohen
Larry Cohen trained with football stars like Gareth Bale, Harry Kane, and Gianluigi Buffon during his playing career, but now he’s cheering for the likes of Bale and other renowned players in the world of esports.
Cohen decided to hang up his boots in 2016 after playing for Jomo Cosmos, Chippa United, and Moroka Swallows in the top tier of South African football. However, he’s still involved with the game – albeit the simulated version.
His business, 38 Entertainment Group, brings together the world’s top footballers to play FIFA against each other, and Cohen enjoys egging them on, just like he supported his teammates sitting in the dugout as a substitute during his playing days.
“Sitting on the bench, you could watch but you couldn’t do anything, yet you still got that thrill of your team participating, winning, and you doing well,” he told the SA Jewish Report. “That’s the way it is with esports, because you have no control over the guys, but you’re there supporting.”
His father, Martin, whose gritty flair anchored the Highlands Park midfield in the 1970s, was his hero growing up in Morribrook Avenue in Linksfield North, Johannesburg.
“As a footballer, my dad was one of the best in the country,” says Cohen. “I always looked up to him. I got to see only a few clips of him playing, but he always guided me in the right direction without being pushy.”
Cohen’s time at King David Linksfield taught him the values, camaraderie, and what he describes as “the KDL fight” needed to believe in yourself and do well in life.
He admits he wasn’t the best student and got into a lot of trouble because his priority was “the beautiful game”, and playing for SuperSport United Academy occupied a lot of his time.
“In matric, I used to come to school quite late because I was training with a professional team,” he says. “Principal [Arnie] Altshuler wasn’t very happy with me. But it was a great experience. I loved being at King David, and the Jewish community is always close to my heart.”
Jomo Cosmos coach Jomo Sono gave Cohen his first professional contract at the age of 19. Having just returned from training with West Ham in England, he was thankful that his potential was noticed by the man who had played alongside his dad in a mixed-race South African team’s 5-0 win against a rebel Argentina XI during the apartheid era.
“It’s always not easy getting your first contract and to break into the professional ranks, but then it’s even more difficult to stay there,” says Cohen.
When Cohen was 22, he trained with English club Tottenham Hotspur.
“I could never play in England because I had a South African passport so I couldn’t get a work permit. I saw it as an opportunity to improve my game. I was training with the likes of Kane in the reserve team. A few days a week, I would mix up with the first team, which included Bale and Emmanuel Adebayor.”
A highlight of Cohen’s career occurred during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
He was set for an off-season break from playing duties at Wits when the club’s head of development, Eric Tinkler, gave him a call.
“One of the Italy players got injured,” said the former Bafana Bafana midfielder. “Would you mind training with them for the next 10 days?”
Cohen jumped at the chance. “Training with the likes of Gattuso, Pirlo, and Buffon was an incredible experience,” he says. “They were really friendly and welcoming. I remember going back to the hotel to have lunch, and Buffon, the Italian goalkeeper who is an absolute legend, pushed one of the players out the way and said, ‘No, Larry, you come sit here, my friend.’”
While playing for Moroka Swallows, where he recalls forming a great centre-back partnership with Roger da Costa, he almost played for Lithuania against the Wayne Rooney-captained England in a Euro 2016 qualifier at Wembley.
He was called up to the Lithuanian national team after finally receiving citizenship. Playing against England at Wembley would have been an absolute dream for the great-grandchild of Lithuanian emigrants to South Africa.
“It’s a pity it didn’t happen,” he says. “FIFA denied my call up, saying my citizenship had to come through my grandparents. It was heartbreaking, having worked so hard to reach that level.”
Bafana Bafana Coach Gordon Igesund then chatted to Cohen about playing for South Africa. “He said he was going to call me up,” says Cohen. “Unfortunately, about two weeks before the game, I pulled [a muscle in] my groin, and I was out for about a month. So, I had a few unlucky breaks in my international career.”
At the age of 28, he retired from playing because he had fallen out of love with the game. The unsuccessful call up to both national teams was “a bitter pill to swallow”. “It was always my dream to play overseas. I was at the age where I thought to myself, ‘I’ve done well, I’ve achieved what I wanted to achieve in terms of becoming a professional footballer, I’ve enjoyed my time, and I’d rather call it on my terms.’ I wanted to pursue other dreams.”
He moved to London, and co-founded 38 Entertainment Group with fellow King David alumnus Jonathan Kark. “The business has two brands,” says Cohen. “One of them is Elevens esports, which we run and code with Gareth Bale. Working with him is great; he’s an absolute superstar. We have a professional FIFA team, so the guys enter competitions around the world. Currently, our FIFA team is second in Europe and sixth in the world.”
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the business starting an initiative called Combat Corona, in which 10 footballers played FIFA against each other live on Twitch. The likes of Bale, Paulo Dybala, Luke Shaw, and Mason Mount participated in the event, which raised money to help the United Nations Children’s Fund fight the pandemic.
“During our three events to date, we’ve worked with more than 150 celebrities from around the world and received just more than 10 million live views on Twitch,” Cohen says.