Soccer always played an important role in my life. I grew up with soccer. I played in High School and a year in college. It taught me valuable lessons, it challenged me, and it introduced me to my best friends. I was excited then, to live in Honduras where soccer is also an important part of life.
Soccer is everything in Honduras. Every town and neighborhood has a soccer field. It’s an outlet from struggles of daily life and lends meaning to life simultaneously. It’s a measure of manhood and a rite of passage. A typical Sunday in Honduras has three things: Church, Soccer, and tajadas. I was lucky enough to be invited to the men’s team for the Villa Soleada town, where most of La Ceiba clients live.
The Villa team consists of an odd mix of players. One or two ex pats from the local NGO’s play consistently. Five or six players from Villa form the core of the team. The rest come and go: family members visiting from out of town, a friend of a friend who happened to have the day off, or a friend from a nearby community who we dragooned away from his own team.
Juan Carlos runs the Villa team. He is stocky with dark hair, dark skin, and a gut. Juan Ca likes to exchange jeers and jokes with friends in his familiar shrill voice. On game day, it’s not unusual to arrive at Juan Ca’s house to find him pacing in his yard, nervously calling players who are late, barking orders at his daughter to put together the team’s kit, and frantically scan the length of the field to find someone to referee.
One of my first games with the team was against a nearby town called La Sarrosa. It was a big event. The team asked to borrow a bus from SHH and they charged 100 LPS per person to travel with the team.
I was told that La Sarrosa was a strong team to be respected. “We have to play with everything we have,” was the motto of the week. The hype surrounding the game was real. Our game would be the main event: a 7pm start under the lights. When we arrived, it looked as though all of Sarrosa was there, and with many of our own fans making the trip, the edges of the field were packed with spectators.
I was new to the team, unfamiliar with their style of play and still learning everyone’s name. I was careful to listen to my teammates and had low expectations for myself. As we stretched and warmed up, Juan Carlos gave a talk: he would not play that night and instead be in charge of substitutions, “Santi will be our captain, because of his knowledge and experience.”
I was confused. Why was I made captain if I was new to the team? How did they know that I had knowledge or experience worthy of a captainship? I didn’t have much time to think about it or even speak up. As Juan Carlos finished his talk, the whistle blew and the game started.
We lost that game 2-1 in a hard fought battle. But the question still lingered.
In a sport that I knew was nearly a matter of life and death to Hondurans, for a game on which a lot was riding, against a stout opponent, for some reason Juan Ca, with silent approval from the rest of the team, selected me to be captain. How was that possible?
Two years later I was in another high stakes game: “Good fucking job Santi. Nice pass to the other team!” Juan Ca’s sarcastic yell could be heard above all others.
Juan Carlos and I sparred frequently in the month previous. We worked together to organize a soccer tournament with 10 teams, each from a different town. We had miscommunications that led him to blame me for “mistakes” in the schedule.
The tension between us culminated on that day. Juan Carlos didn’t start me this time and much less make me captain. Before the game he told me I was in bad form.
A few plays later I received the ball again. I was on the right side, I beat one defender, cut inside and put a cross in that our forward headed wide of the goal. A good play, I thought. “WHY DON’T YOU YELL ABOUT THAT JUAN CA?!” I shocked even myself at how loud I had yelled. The field went silent. I heard someone on the sideline say, “whoa, what was that?”
We lost that game. Afterwards, Juan Carlos scolded the team saying that we didn’t play with enough heart and toughness. I couldn’t contain myself any longer. I got into an argument with him in front of everyone and told him to shut up.
Strangely, when I look back at that memory, I feel proud. I like to believe that I broke through a barrier. Juan Ca and the team treated me better than I deserved at La Sarrosa. But in the two years between these two games something changed. Juan Ca yelling at me was more meaningful than being named captain. It is a sign of an underlying trust, that he can be honest without fear of jeopardizing our friendship and my support.
Juan Ca and I talked later. He explained to me why he was so critical. Juan Ca wants to win because soccer is more than a respite to him. Winning means gaining the other teams respect, winning is gaining status for a day, and winning swells your pride in your team and your town. I respect that.
I don’t mind being benched or getting yelled at. I mind him giving me respect I haven’t earned. I mind him curbing his ambition to please me or anyone else. Now I know he isn’t trying to be mean, now I know I will have to earn his respect and play with everything I have to honor his ambition and his team.
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