Ball and Foot: My Own Nicaraguan Tale

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In case you missed it, Remezcla had a pretty dope story about a young American heading to Nicaragua and helping out with a nonprofit in Granada that uses soccer as tool for social change. The story reminded me about my own tale and the joys of living in Nicaragua, raising my two young kids in Managua, and working for Casa Alianza Nicaragua.

More importantly, I recalled that about three years ago I filed a short story on said life experiences for XI Quarterly, the seriously dope soccer quarterly founded by Tom Dunmore that due to a major printing error and contract dispute went belly up after only two issues. I have the utmost respect for Tom (and David) and harbor no bad feelings towards either, but I am publishing the story here so it sees the light of day. Enjoy!

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Sitting in a blue upholstered chair just outside Gate D10 at Houston’s International Airport, a brilliant Texas summer sun illuminated the tarmac outside. Inside, however, cynicism clouded my view. Glancing around at the motley crew sitting beside me, all waiting to hop a three-hour flight to Managua, Nicaragua, I thought I saw the worst of humanity. To my left, a pack of middle-aged California surfer dudes huddled. They wore low-cut and skintight athletic shirts. They nodded bleached-blonde heads in unison while discussing waves, wax, and long planks of wood.  To my right, a cluster of teenagers wore clean, white “Christ Saves” t-shirts and alternated between giggles and heckles. Braces obscured any lip-reading, but their conversations appeared to revolve around the cellular phones permanently molded to their right hands.

And me? My reason to travel? Just love, that’s all. Years earlier, Nicaragua and a Nicaraguan lady in particular had stolen my heart. I had to return. This is the story of how something as simple as a place can impact a person for the rest of his or her life. And how something as basic as kicking a ball can do the same.

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I could profile the Nicaraguan travelers in the airport because, sadly, at the time I traveled to Nicaragua three times a year under less than ideal circumstances. Years earlier, I’d worked at Casa Alianza Nicaragua, a nonprofit that helps street-children. I’d also fallen in love and married a local. However, since then, red tape had delayed the arrival of my bride. Days turned to weeks turned to months turned to years. Every four months, I scraped funds and borrowed money to visit my wife for as long as permitted by my job in the States. Sitting at the airport terminal, I felt more like a native and less like a tourist. Returning prodigious sons and I exchanged awkward glances and pinned our eyes to the invading Anglo-barbarians.

The surfers were definitely headed to San Juan del Sur, a slice of Nicaragua carved up by ex-pat Gringos for other ex-pat Gringos. If you were lucky, you wouldn’t see a Nicaraguan during your entire trip there. No Spanish necessary. The teenagers, sometimes known as “missionaries,” would probably stay one week in an expensive two-story house outside the capital, spend maybe an hour-a-day actually in the city and interacting with Nicaraguans, and purchase enough postcards to reforest the Amazon. From my perspective and predicament, it was easy to be cynical. Why were the surfer dudes so clueless? What difference could the teenagers make in a Nicaraguan’s life in only a week?

My time at Casa Alianza had lasted much longer than a week, but felt like it ended in the blink of an eye. Casa Alianza Nicaragua, an award-winning nonprofit shelter for street children, offered medical care, classes, a roof, a bed, and regular meals. Like many similar shelters, the kids could leave at any time. This, of course, created a great deal of turnover. Some kids only lasted a day. I worked regularly with the equipo de calle (street team) and, always in a group of at least two, traveled to dangerous neighborhoods to educate kids about Casa Alianza and offer emergency medical assistance.

Aside from the inherent awkwardness of a pasty white American speaking heavily-accented Spanish and wandering around rough barrios, the recruitment of kids presented a conundrum even for Casa Alianza veterans. Most street kids with no family or friends had little-to-no interest in the rules, structure, and ordered living on hand at the shelter. They’d accept emergency medical treatment in the case of machete wounds (quite common), but weren’t talkers. Life had taught them to distrust strangers. Striking up a conversation was tough. Something beyond words was needed to create a connection.

Enter the ball.

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If Occam’s Razor is true, then soccer rules the world by simplicity. Many sports necessitate a large group of friends, expensive equipment, and a well-marked field. To play soccer, you only need two people, a ball, and a sliver of space. More importantly, if you can walk, then you can kick a ball. The street kids I encountered, like many Nicaraguan youths today, had been seduced by Ronaldinho’s grin and Nike advertising campaigns, aided and abetted by the proliferation of cable TV. La Liga’s conquest of Latin America in the prior decade made Cortes pale in comparison. Few Nicaraguan kids cared for the pastime of yesteryear, baseball. Thus, the Casa Alianza street team always packed a small, black, leather soccer ball in our emergency pack.

The ball opened eyes, minds, and hearts. Even though I was a veteran of pickup park soccer, I was still amazed how quickly kick-abouts with street kids formed. Even more astonishing was how a two-person passing session could quickly turn an indifferent face into a joyful one. With the ball came easy conversation: the majestic theatrics of Ronaldinho at Barcelona, the promise of a young Robinho at Real Madrid, etc. Then, at the proper juncture, I’d transition from sport to the personal. Do you play on a school team? Where did you go to school? Do you play with your brothers? Do you have any brothers? The ball was an invaluable icebreaker and trust-builder.

In the last two decades, psychologists have started to document the behavioral effects and importance of “play.” In Psychology Today, Hara Estraff Marano wrote a wonderful article titled “The Power of Play.” In 1999, the “play” research was still nascent, but Marano noted that the act of playing probably renewed neural connections in the brain, allowing our “brains to exercise their very flexibility.” My favorite part of Marano’s article is when she tries to define “play” and documents her failure. She concludes that “play” is something “we all recognize when we see.”

Marano focused on the power of the beach, a physical location, to create playful ambience free from the strife of obligations at home and work. The black leather ball in the Casa Alianza backpack granted the equipo de calle an unworldly power: to transform despondent and impoverished third world neighborhoods into a place of play, relaxation, and escape. We didn’t need to go to San Juan del Sur. We brought the San Juan del Sur with us.

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When I didn’t scamper about Managua’s slums with equipo de calle, I lent a hand at the Casa Alianza shelter. Located a few blocks south of the National Baseball Stadium, a one-and-a-half story tall, orange concrete fence surrounded the perimeter. No, the fence was not meant to keep the kids in. Rather, it was meant to keep out danger. In many cases, kids would come to the shelter after a particularly nasty gang altercation, hoping to find tranquility and avoid any reprisals. Inside the perimeter, a series of administrative buildings, dorms, classrooms, and a grass quad graced the shelter’s grounds. On one side of the quad, a smooth concrete surface and net-less metal goals beckoned. This was the place for desahogo and recreo.

Futbol Cinco, similar to futsal, was the name of the game. Some of the street children we recruited were decent footballers. However, the best players normally came from a half-rung up in the socioeconomic ladder. They usually benefitted from enough parental support to eat a balanced diet, but enough parental disengagement to allow them to play soccer instead of attending school or doing homework. As Simon Kuper pointed out in Soccernomics, the Gladwell 10,000 hour rule supports this observation. Star players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Didier Drogba were immigrants, a cross-section of the community that lurks in the “just poor enough” money spot for producing soccer prodigies.

The best players at Casa Alianza during my time were the half-brothers Armando and Marcos. Armando was a bit short for his height, but possessed the shoulders of a fully grown man. Scars covered his forehead, and his buzzed scalp deflected the unforgiving Nicaraguan sun as he galloped up and down the cancha. He was a classical vertical winger who loved to cut inside and shoot. His older half-brother Marcos was a tall man in a boy’s lean body. He loomed over the other kids and his emotionless face exuded maturity. He said little. He rarely got into fights, a rarity given the tough-and-tumble nature of most of the kids. On the field, he could shift between a central midfielder and forward with ease. His economy of movement belied a good reading of the game and also masked a deceptively fast first-step. In most pickup games, the brothers had to be separated; otherwise the score line would get out of hand, along with tempers.

At least until the Torneo Relámpago. Once a year, Casa Alianza held a tournament for the kids and staff at the shelter. Marcos and Armando united forces and their team annihilated the competition, at least until the semifinals, where they faced a squad of fully-grown adults captained by yours truly. I took my customary Futsal Cinco spot as the center midfielder in a striker-less 0-3-2. The goal was for the outside wingers to cut in and play forward on offense, but, after a few minutes, we conceded two goals and faced a mountain to climb. I bagged a fortunate brace – one shot from distance somehow navigated a mass of legs and evaded a screened goalie. The other goal was a rebound on a third attempt. Nobody played much defense, including the goalies.

From that point on, I could feel both my legs and my team wilting. Despite playing on the shortest of fields, I sensed my team’s defensive lines shift backwards until we basically stood in front of our own net. Then, the goals came. One. Two. Three. The kids loved it. They hissed. They booed. They laughed. Armando and Marcos tried audacious heel shots, flicks, and volleys. Then, it happened. A cross got deflected and Marcos rose to attempt a bicycle kick, and, deep within me, a competitive monster rose to the surface and I pushed him to the ground. Marcos fell a bit awkwardly, and looked up at me with disgust in his eyes. Then, we both looked at the referee, a social worker at Casa Alianza. He took the whistle out of his mouth and waved play on. Two minutes later, he smiled and winked at me. The kids watching all shouted in frustration. The game mercifully ended soon thereafter.

The next day, silence surrounded me and many of the children kept their distance. What do you say? For over a decade, Casa Alianza had imparted lessons of civility and respect. In recruiting kids, soccer had been a useful tool of play and relaxation. During school days at the shelter, some of the more competitive boys lived for the recreos and games of Futbol Cinco.  Yet soccer could not erase away the unsavory aspects of life, I reasoned. Adults and people, like me, make mistakes. Those in power, like the referee, fall prey to favoritism. Neither explanation excused the behavior, but both were facts of life. But what could I say to the kids, many of whom had become like friends?

Enter the foot. In my mouth.

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Years have passed and I haven’t seen Nicaragua or Gate D10 in a longtime. In 2010, Casa Alianza Nicaragua fielded a team that qualified for the homeless World Cup in South Africa. I’d like to take a smidgen of credit, but I harbor no doubt that the kids whose lives I touched cycled out years earlier. My wife finally arrived to the States, and I had a co-worker who had traveled to Nicaragua as a youth. He was a brilliant person with a huge heart. I imagined him in braces and a “Christ saves” t-shirt and shuddered at my earlier cynicism. Today, I’ll never doubt the power of a place, like Nicaragua, or a game, like soccer, to open up parts of us we didn’t know we had. I carry both with me wherever I go.

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