Atlanta Silverbacks Park, now fitted out with three artificial pitches and a 3,000-seat stadium, sits east of Spaghetti Junction (aka Tom Moreland Interchange), the five-level stack of roller-coaster-like ramps servicing Interstates 85 and 285. (© 2007 Navteq | © 2006 Google)
Much of soccer culture in the United States remains hidden, but matches such as the Jul 28 Copa Amistad between the Atlanta Silverbacks and Cruz Azul cast light on the place of the sport in everyday lives of Latinos. Will Ramírez, publisher of Estadio, a Spanish-language sports weekly based in Tucker, Georgia, describes in our Jul 24 podcast how he and many of the 425,000 Hispanics in the Atlanta area remain linked to soccer despite, or because of, displacement.
Spanish people play soccer like crazy. They play from Monday through Sunday. The first league in Atlanta was back in ’87 or ’88 with only 15 teams. And now there are more than 30 [leagues]. I say about 40,000 [Hispanic] players play soccer over the week. That’s a lot of players.
Ramírez, who played professionally in his native El Salvador and in Honduras before coming to Houston in 1985 to play for Houston Dynamos of the short-lived United Soccer League, started the tabloid in 1997 with $1,000. He operated from a room in his house before putting $30,000 on credit cards to expand; now, Estadio numbers among at least seven periodistas deportivos in the Atlanta area with a combined 180,000 circulation (2003 figures) (see Michelle Hiskey, “Newspapers Make Sport(s) in Spanish,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 17 Aug 03).
Much of Estadio‘s coverage focuses on the amateur Latino and international leagues. The Jul 19 issue (no. 542) features de rigueur post-game pictures of victors and trophies but also of the game’s grittier underside: a player strapped to a gurney as he is loaded onto a DeKalb County fire-and-rescue vehicle and another under police escort after being ejected from a second-division encounter in Liga Independiente de Chamblee. The profusion of ads throughout shows how the Hispanic community has emerged as a market force. The Hispanic papers boasted of their influence in 2003 when the Atlanta Beat of the Women’s United Soccer Association acquired Maribel Domínguez of Mexico (see 5 Mar 04). Supporters waving Mexican flags boosted the team’s attendance; Estadio, on its front page, branded Domínguez “Mari-gol.”
Estadio included a five-story package on the Silverbacks’ home friendly Jul 12 versus Monterrey. The teams drew 1–1. (© 2007 Estadio)
Boris Jerkunica, owner of the Silverbacks, credits the Hispanic press and other Hispanic-owned companies with helping to build the Silverbacks brand within Atlanta. Estadio features four full pages of Silverbacks coverage on Jul 19, with concentration on an earlier friendly versus another Mexican first-division team, Monterrey. The match did not merit a mention in the local English-language newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The American press has been harder to engage,” Jerkunica says, “especially the newspaper in town.”
In efforts to build a club environment at Silverbacks Park at what perhaps is Atlanta’s most famous intersection—the tangle of cement highway ramps north of the city known collectively as Spaghetti Junction—the Atlanta team relies at least partly on Hispanic leagues and families to fill its three fields on weekday nights and weekends. Watching any of the Silverbacks’ teams, whether the first-division USL team, the W-League Silverbacks women or developmental sides, from the main 3,000-seat stadium, one remains aware of parallel action on the neighboring two lighted fields. Balls periodically arc through the klieg lights, and constant foot and car traffic churns up construction dust from Georgia clay.
In creating a ladder of teams down to youth levels, Jerkunica says he has modeled player-development schemes on those from his native Croatia with help from business partners from the UK. The system already has produced at least one rising talent, 16-year-old Candace West, who on Jul 20 scored her first goal for the Silverbacks women to help solidify the team’s place in the W-League playoffs.
Jerkunica, 40, acquired the Silverbacks in 2000, the fourth owner of a team he once said carried an air of “conditioned pessimism” (Mike Tierney, “The American Dream—With a Kick,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 9 Jul 06). He says that the Silverbacks’ motto, in contrast to previous, more ego-driven American flirtations with soccer, reflects confidence in the game’s sustainability. “We have a philosophy of as they come we will build it, instead of we will build it and they will come.” The objective, in the language of one who acquired the team after sale of a joint software venture netted $287 million, is to make the franchise “cash-flow neutral.” Hence, the team remained wary when approached by organizers of a restart women’s professional league trying to add investors before launching in spring 2008. “Our hearts want to” take the risk of buying into the league, Jerkunica wrote in February, “but our minds tell us not to.”
That Silverbacks Park remains a construction zone, a work in progress, seems appropriate for such a long-term outlook. Cruz Azul (“Los Cementeros”), founded in 1927 by workers of the eponymous cement company, should feel at home among the soaring cement highway arches near the Silverbacks stadium. Both Jerkunica and Ramírez expect a strong crowd of Cruz Azul supporters this Saturday.
Quinones wished to include a story from America’s heartland in his work, in addition to tales of opera in Tijuana and the black-velvet painting industry.
In many communities in the United States, however, Latino supporters do not exist in such numbers or with such security in their standing. That Latino soccer cultures are not uniform is apparent in Sam Quinones‘s treatment of the Garden City High School soccer team. The chapter, “A Soccer Season in Southwest Kansas,” appears within Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration (University of New Mexico Press, 2007), the Los Angeles Times writer’s most recent collection.
Quinones traveled “on a hunch” to the High Plains, guided by Garden City coach Joaquín Padilla. The flat landscape filled with cattle and corn, the daring of homesteading pioneers and certainly the presence of Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz—who author L. Frank Baum positioned in nearby Liberal, Kansas, “to emphasize his heroine’s innocence”—occupy strands in the American myth-making enterprise. The area more recently has become a site for Mexican migration due to the presence of the world’s largest beef slaughterhouse, run by IBP, Iowa Beef Packers—since acquired by Tyson Foods.
The 2003 Garden City team that Quinones profiles—consisting of 11 children of Mexican immigrants, five from El Salvador, one Vietnamese and one Anglo—considers itself an outsider in school life. Parents, family members and players themselves work or sense that one day they will work at the IBP plant, which offers security but also an easy surrender to the struggle against language and other cultural barriers. Although the team formed in 1996, players believe that “some students on campus didn’t even know the school had a soccer team.” Soccer, Quinones tells us,
was relegated, was ignored, never mentioned even when the team had a brief period where it did okay. No one ever mentioned it. A lot of kids on the team kind of viewed this as the way Mexicans were viewed in the community still. Mexicans had been an integral and essential part of the economy as beef workers for 20 years by that point, but they were never really mentioned except in the crime pages. The way soccer was viewed was very much a symbol for how Mexicans had not integrated … into the southwest Kansas area.
Successes during the 2003 season help bring the players and the Hispanic community at large into public view, resulting in the school’s first pep rally on the soccer team’s behalf. Individually, players and families shake off some of the fear that limits possibilities for life and that even affects the style of fútbol, such that the high school in times of struggle plays with deference to the taller white children from opposing schools in the region.
A trickle-down effect helps the Hispanic community more broadly recognize its legitimacy in the cultural surround. The school the following year hires the first Hispanic high school principal in Kansas history. Quinones cites the example of Vanessa Ramírez, empowered through supporting the Garden City team to continue her education past high school and to play soccer herself.
“Hispanic students isolate themselves,” Ramírez tells Quinones. “They say, ‘I’m going to look stupid if I participate.’ They feel like they don’t want to be involved in school. They just want to be involved in their own little world. They’re scared.”
- David Keyes of Culture of Soccer offers a photo essay on the Garden City team as part of his American soccer road trip (Sept 23).
- The United Soccer Leagues in which the Atlanta Silverbacks compete is not a “second division” in the true sense. There is no promotion or relegation between USL and MLS. Further, top U.S.-based players sometimes prefer the USL to gain better salaries, to settle in a more affordable city and to assure themselves playing time (Mark Zeigler, “Upstart USL Teams Make Mark against MLS,” San Diego Union-Tribune, Aug 1).
Although facing under-strength MLS sides, USL teams won five of eight matches in the U.S. Open Cup third round in July. The Silverbacks themselves, although mid-table in the USL first division, came close to upsetting FC Dallas on Jul 9. Dallas advanced on penalties. Further, first-division USL teams Vancouver, Montreal and Puerto Rico are ineligible for the U.S.-only knockout competition.
- The audio of Quinones’s Jul 25 appearance on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is available for download (“Author Puts Faces on the Immigration Debate”).