May 27, 2007

Last goal

After so many years the San Francisco Panthers have played in their last tournament together. The team lost two of three games in the San Francisco cup (under 14) and will not be in the finals tomorrow. In the one win Dash was sent in as a striker and scored a second half goal, his first in a tournament in years.

Some of these kids have been playing on this team since they were four; Dash, since he was 6. Now 7 years later, three state cup appearances, endless leagues and tournaments later, Super Ys, and Norcals later, it's all coming to an end. The coach has decided to withdraw, a stunning loss because he has not only kept the team focused, but he has also paid thousands of dollars in tournament fees and for uniforms.

Most of the players come from families with little or no money. It's not uncommon for one of the parents to be an illegal alien.

Now that he is quitting, the coach is dealing three of the top players to Juventes in Burlingame, one of the premier teams in Northern California. A fourth player is returning to Mexico for a year. The four youngest players, including Dash, will go to a 13-and-under team, run by an ambitious coach whose 18-and-under team won the San Francisco Cup this weekend.

Other players will be allotted to different teams around the city. Some will probably quit. This is the year, at 13 and 14, when a lot of kids peak. They burn out or become caught up in girls or gangs. They stop coming to practice, they don't perform in games, it becomes harder to keep teams together, and so the teams are endlessly falling apart and regrouping. In the cup this weekend, two players were picked up at the last moment, just for this tournament.

But here is why this story is more than a family heirloom in the bottom of the top drawer.

Two Mexicans friends started the team. Pepe and Jose. One worked as a waiter, the other worked for a landscaping company. Together, they wanted something better for their kids. The old immigrant refrain. So they created a team that kept its cohesion because the parents were all friends and because as the team began to win the parents were paid back in pride. The team's success was proof you could live in the Mission district and make something of yourself, that you could go off and play on artificial turf in the wealthy suburbs of San Ramon and Marin. You could humble the sons of the Silicon Valley elite, and the white bread boys in Santa Clara, even as your wife cleaned their homes and you built their gardens.

Eventually, the team fell into the hands of this coach, a former ballet dancer with the New York City Ballet and then the San Francisco Ballet. He's now a well-to-do contractor. His sons are, nearing the end of high school, probably going to college on soccer scholarships.

For years he has let the team's best players be guests on other teams around the Bay Area, particularly Juventes. That coach never loaned his players, although we needed them, but we lent them ours. Such is the cutthroat nature of kid soccer these days. Why does he do it? To get his best players better competition and better exposure.

He has argued that while the team has occasionally suffered losses because the best players were off playing somewhere else, the individual interest was greater than the community interest. And he would explain that some of these kids have soccer talents, which combined with good grades, could help them get into a good college, or any college. This is an opportunity not well understood in the immigrant community, where people assume that college, city college, is out of reach unless you know someone. Meanwhile, a good college is impossible unless you are Caucasian.

But now that the coach is leaving, everyone is afraid. The whole notion of using soccer to get to college seems distant. Suddenly, people feel betrayed. This possibility was held out, now it's taken away. The same old story.

And so what is the alternative? The alternative is to stay together, to fight off change. 'Remember, we are family.' Past glories are the proof that things should stay the same.

But no one has stepped forward to lead the team, the one person who could do it must return to Mexico. No one has any money. No one has the time. What will happen? Perhaps they can last a little longer. They can still get into some of the better known tournaments, but without an infusion of state team quality players they won't win and you can't keep going to the better tournaments unless you win. That's the bottom line, you can only win or else no one will invite you. Just like life in America.

So now the departing coach is being slathered with insults. After four years he's being painted as a devil. He didn't sign up for this tournament or he brought in that player who was no good or he doesn't understand us....

And that's true.

But it's not only the coach who is being defamed. The best player in the team, who has a real chance of getting to a regional team in the next year, and was drafted second in the regional tryouts a few months ago, is suddenly over-rated. Other players who rumor has it are going to Jueventes are also discredited or they are not going after all.

Now there is a furor and fear. The team that gave so much hope turns out to be more important than anyone realized. For a moment it seems as if without that team there will be no source of pride, no source of hope. If you have to work these tough jobs for little money what other reason is there to be happy at night? What else is there to look forward to every weekend? What promise is there in anything?

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