The league where ‘soccer’ becomes ‘football’ |

The league where ‘soccer’ becomes ‘football’

Aspen Times writer

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of five stories looking at different aspects of Latino life in the valley.By Eben HarrellAspen Times Staff WriterOn a campus overlooking the Roaring Fork Valley, miles above the hardship of life and work waiting below, on a hot summer Sunday that reminds many of their native home, local Latinos gather to play the game that binds them.It’s soccer season. “Football,” if you want to be taken seriously, which those in the shiny team uniforms stretching, running and warming up so obviously do. It’s called the New Millennium, an independent league of 21 teams that rent the Colorado Mountain College Spring Valley campus’ five playing fields every Sunday through the summer from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

It’s a cultural event – the league is open to all, although all but one of the teams are Spanish speaking. Vendors wheel trolleys around; bells ring in the breeze. Tortas, tacos, tamales – the scents, spices, and sounds of a homeland left but not forgotten. The league consists of a few Salvadoran squads, one Argentine, the majority Mexican. The team name of the one English speaking squad? “The Tokens.” It’s a competitive league, but the emphasis is not on competition. For many Latinos around the world, soccer is second only to God. And so on Sunday, a tradition has developed – church, then the soccer fields. On the opening day of the league, 800 Latinos showed up; participation has been steady since.The history of the league is the same as the history of its participants – the search for a home. The league first started at nearby Blue Lake fields, where Latinos would wait for high school practice to finish before scrambling in a few minutes of play before dark. Now each team has a sponsor, uniforms from Nike, Adidas, or Reebok, and a small but faithful following of supporters. Martin Mendez is one of the organizers of the league. He’s a young, handsome man who strikes the traditional pose of the athlete addressing the media, legs spread slightly and hands cupped behind his back when he talks. He speaks in English that is accented but accurate, his eyes fixed on the turf below.”This is really one of the few events for the Spanish community,” Mendez says. “That’s why so many from our community show up every Sunday.”

The varying work schedules of low-paying, service industry jobs (which most of these men fill) mean that teams rarely manage to organize a practice. Mendez’s team, sponsored by Tequilla’s Mexican Restaurant in Glenwood Springs, is one of the top in the league. Yet they haven’t managed to assemble on any day but Sunday. Still, in play, the team keeps its structure remarkably well. They don’t keep possession of the ball for long, but always look dangerous to score when they do. Two long, perfectly placed passes from midfield put his team up two goals to one, a margin they maintain for the rest of the match.President Bush called them “the people in the shadows,” but what you’ll find here is only the athlete’s desire for the spotlight. Mendez wonders if the paper will list the goal scorers. Several players jockey to be interviewed; “will there be a photographer?” they wonder.The league is not without its problems. A few years ago, a gun was spotted in the crowd. Vandalism and litter is a persistent problem. Security guards patrol the grounds.But the effort for improvement is also clear. The referees officiate more than just the game – one interrupts Mendez to report a nearby child heard swearing. And families line the sidelines, mothers large of presence keeping a stern eye lest their teenagers wander too far off.Like American blacks in basketball and baseball before them, who were both accepted and denigrated for their athletic prowess, Latin Americans have found soccer both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand they are perceived as geniuses, admired for their unparalleled flair and creativity on the field.

Nike once ran a commercial in America of Latin American soccer players – the majority Brazilian – passing a soccer ball through a crowded airport, one of the few soccer commercials ever shown on American TV. Pele is one of the most recognizable people in the world 20 years after his retirement. And when you think soccer, who doesn’t think Latino?But at the same time, their obsession and passion for the game has belittled them in the eyes of many. The killing of a Colombian goalie in the domestic league after he conceded a winning goal is just one of many excuses used to write Latin America’s soccer culture off as primitive, undeveloped, and violent.What you find in Glenwood is passion tempered by age, ability, the odd beer gut. There are fine players in the league – even the occasional former professional – but most of the players are admittedly amateur. A scurry of play marks the first 15 minutes of each match, but by end of the first half the game has slowed, grimaces exchanged for smiles, and the pretense to greatness abandoned.At halftime of one of the matches, a midfielder who works construction six days a week, who shares a trailer with five members of his family, stumbles over to the sidelines and lies down on his back. His 3-year-old daughter brings him a bottle of water.”What a beautiful game,” he says.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is

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