BLOG

Blind Football in Bogotá: A Different Side of the Beautiful Game


We call it the beautiful game because it’s sexy. Dizzying runs, whipped in balls and a perfect arching shot are just as visually pleasing turns as curves on the opposite sex for us football fanatics.

And that moment when the ball hits the net after the perfect build up? I’ll let you dream up your own metaphor for that one.

While we experience what the game has to offer with multiple senses, what we see on the field is what makes it so intoxicating. Unless you're on the field, you can’t touch the ball. And if you're not at the stadium, the sound of the crowd simply can’t be duplicated. But that vision, that ability to view each pass and shot is something most of us can enjoy, even from the comfort of our living rooms.

However, not everyone has that ability we take for granted each time we turn on the television to catch a match. On a Wednesday afternoon in a park in Bogotá, Colombia, we found that sight isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying the beautiful game.

Twice a week in the Parque Nacional in the Colombian capital, a team of visually impaired footballers gets together to play. With the help of blindfolds, each member has their sight totally eliminated, as some players experience vision loss to different degrees.

Hardly a casual kick around, the players go through the paces of any normal team. They stretch, they do drills and they scrimmage at the end of their sessions. They take it seriously too. This particular team represents all of Cundinamarca - the largest of Colombia’s 32 Federal Departments - and just last year, the team won an international tournament in Guatemala for 5-aside visually impaired teams in Latin America. That’s certainly more than most of us can boast when it comes to our international football careers.

Playing with and learning from the Cundinamarca team
Watching the team play was an experience in itself, but Pete and I found there is no substitute for strapping on the blindfold and getting into the match.

If you’ve ever felt uncomfortable on a football pitch, think of that experience and take away your ability to see. Oh, and if you’re like me, take away your ability to fully understand the language your team is speaking. If it seems a bit terrifying, that’s because it is.

Pete and I have been in our fair share of sporting events in the past, but we were both in agreement that the nerves we felt before stepping on the field with the team from Cundinamarca were difficult to match.

But after a few minutes, we got into a groove. We relaxed a little and you begin to find your spot on the field and become more comfortable. That’s not to say Pete and I played well. We were terrible. Even without the ability to see what we were doing, we could sense that we were terrible.

Oddly enough, that ability to sense our own mistakes and errors was the most rewarding part of the experience. When you have the ability to use visual aids, it’s easy to overlook the need to communicate, position yourself and simply be aware of what is happening on the field. However, if you take that away, something beautiful happens: you start to feel and sense the game around you. You find yourself taking more measured steps than you normally would, and listening to the words (or cardinal directions) of your teammates a little more closely.

It was a mind-opening lesson about the importance of communication and awareness in football. If you really want to improve as a player, there are few better ways to enhance your game than putting on the blindfold. Although Pete and I won’t be signing a massive contract for a big club anytime soon, we might just be a little better because of the match we played in Bogotá.

As football fans, we look for the game to give us a little more each time we watch or play. I can say with certainty that on that Wednesday afternoon in the Colombian capital, the game gave me more than I will ever be able to reciprocate.

No matter how hard I try, it’s hard to fully explain the sensation of playing blind football. If you can, try it for yourself. You might just find there’s another version of football that’s just as beautiful as the one you’re used to.


While the game isn’t big in the United States today, it will hopefully grow in the coming years. In fact, Luis Casteñeda Jr., the son of our main subject of the Cundinamarca team, is heading to the U.S. in the coming months to give presentations about the sport at some of the country’s most reputable colleges and universities for the visually impaired. We wish him the best will keep everyone posted about Luis’ efforts.

 

Alajuelense, Herediano & Saprissa: Costa Rica's Golden Triangle


One of the many perks of living in a first world country is that our money tends to go a long way when you cross the border. No matter what your into or what sort of climate you are looking for, chances are you can find a spot somewhere on planet Earth where you get your bang for your buck.

If football happens to be your drug and sunny weather your thing, then look make sure to check flights to San Jose, Costa Rica. In less than half an hour, you can drive to the grounds of the country’s three biggest clubs - Alajuelense, Herediano and Saprissa - making your dollar go that much further.

But is it worth it? Is the level of play all that different than the MLS? In truth, probably not. However, taking a tour of Costa Rica’s Golden Triangle of Football around San Jose will allow you to experience a variety of matchday atmospheres as well as put you within touching distance of world-class beaches and rainforest-surrounded volcanoes. Those three factors make a football trek to Costa Rica a must for any American fan.

What’s even more enticing about the prospect of taking a trip to this slice of Central America is that it’s an easy transition for any novice gringo traveler to make. For years, Costa Rica has been a haven for American ex-pats and retirees looking for the relaxed, carefree “pura vida” lifestyle that defines Tico culture.

The influence of American culture is so entrenched in Costa Rica that major corporations from the United States are some of Costa Rica’s biggest employers. Additionally. it’s not all that difficult to find your favorite American brands and businesses across the country. In fact, on our first night in Heredia (a suburb of San Jose) our hosts took us informed us that Wal Mart would be the best option for us to pick up the supplies we would need for our week long stay.

While the yankeeness was sort of comforting, it wasn’t exactly what we were looking for in Costa Rica. Instead, we were out to find what the trio of close geographic rivals had to offer.

Herediano: A Neighborhood Club
Our first stop was Estadio Rosabal, the intimate 10,000ish seat ground in Heredia that houses Herediano, the third biggest club in the country in terms of titles and fans. While 10,000 some seats doesn’t sound like much, the stadium is a perfect representation of Heredia, a bustling city that maintains a close-knit neighborhood feel.

As our host Gabe Rosales - a lifetime Herediano fan - indicated, the club’s passionate support is grounded in that very neighborhood dynamic.

“It’s a tradition,” Rosales said. “I went to games with my grandfather, father, uncle and my brother my whole life. We can walk to the games, it’s part of what we do as a family.”

For American MLS fans, the family fandom discussion might be a vexing one. It’s a reminder of MLS 1.0 and the old way of thinking regarding how to make the sport grow in the United States. However, at Herediano, the family dynamic works. While you have your pockets of families, it’s not at the expense of the common fan. You can still step foot into Estadio Rosabal and find expletive ridden chants and rambunctious fanatics while still feeling safe. It’s a great balance of intense passion and neighborly welcome that is often difficult to strike.

Inside the Monster's Cave
The second stadium we checked out was more of the same, only to a more incredible degree: Saprissa Stadium, a.k.a., The Monster’s Cave. Over the years, the ground has established a reputation for being the most boisterous place to play in any CONCACAF country, and it’s easy to see why.

Once we checked into the press area for Saprissa’s match against Alajuense (the Costa Rica Classico), we were able to literally see the passion of the ground. Positioned just under where Saprissa’s barra sits, the press entrance has a long slanted wall that literally shakes from the bouncing of the Saprissa faithful above.

You can see it. You can feel it. At that moment, we knew we were finally in the thick of a world that lives and breathes football.

The Perfect Weekend Getaway
If you’re an American looking to catch the soccer bug and take a trip abroad, there are few options as fitting as Costa Rica. Familiar enough for the novice yankee traveler to survive yet foreign enough to get your toes wet on the international scene, Costa Rica is the perfect setting for any fledgling football fan from the states. 

So grab a flight to San Jose, take the short trip to any of the three local giants’ stadiums then trek a few hours down to the coast for the perfect weekend excursion. You’ll be happy you did. We were.








Tijuana Xolos: Our First Frontier and a Borderless Club

Cheap drugs, cheap whores and cheap beers. That’s usually what comes to mind when Americans think about Tijuana. The Mexican border town is almost a four-letter word in the American lexicon. For decades, tales of debauchery, violence and unadulterated mystery have shaped the narrative we hold of Tijuana.

That makes it all the more odd that we didn’t really feel out of place when we spent five days in the city covering Club Tijuana Xolos during the first leg of our four month journey to Brazil. That’s not because we are ribaldrous spirits who look for trouble at any turn. Rather, it’s because we found Tijuana to be a pretty welcoming city.

Are there problems? Certainly. The “El Bordo” canal area is filled with scores of homeless deportees who are almost all addicted to hard narcotics such as heroin. (See: VICE on ‘El Bordo’) Then there is the Zona Norte, a booze-fueled nightlife section of the city that’s a favorite haunt for pickpockets, robbers and other shady after hours crowds.

However, there are certainly some major American cities where similar comparisons can be drawn. Chicago, New Orleans and Detroit are a few that come to mind.

The perception that Tijuana is a haven of vice where everyone is out to get you is hardly accurate, as we found out. And Los Xolos, a 7-year-old football club that calls Tijuana home has helped facilitate a change in how Tijuana is perceived across the border.

In literally a matter of minutes, you can cross on foot into Mexico from San Ysidro, a town just 15 minutes south of San Diego. Do you need to show a passport? Probably not. Do you need to talk to a border guard? Probably not. Do you need to wait in a long line? Probably not. The fact that the border is so easy for gringos to cross has helped attract soccer-loving souls from San Diego to Tijuana’s Estadio Caliente to get their footie fix.

A vibrant match-day atmosphere and a welcoming pre-game parking lot that isn’t too dissimilar to an American college football tailgate (swap Bud Light for Tecate) are enough to make anyone from north of the border feel at home.

According to Alex Riggins, a journalist and close follower of Xolos from San Diego who was raised in the States but is of Mexican decent, the club entered the consciousness of San Diegans during a stirring run to the Mexican Apertura title in 2012. Since then, the floodgates have opened and Xolos are just as much San Diego’s team as Tijuana’s.

It’s a rosy story of cross-cultural melding that isn’t too common with football nowadays. However, for avid MLS fans, it’s not exactly a good sign. When we asked Riggins if an MLS team would be successful in the lucrative and untapped market of San Diego, he responded without hesitation: “No”. Simply put, Xolos is too big of a brand on both sides on the border.

While that’s an opportunity missed for America’s top domestic league, the story of Tijuana Xolos is one that encapsulates the Mexico-United States soccer dynamic while also helping the much maligned border town reshape its reputation abroad.

For some, the press coverage that Xolos receives may seem a bit contrived and romantic. However, the fact is that the club is attracting scores of white-skinned, blonde-haired gringos from SoCal to Tijuana for something other than vice. And that alone is a story worth telling.

In truth, Tijuana isn’t too different than any other major city, as long as you have your wits about you and don’t do anything foolish. As Lee Bosch, one of our interview subjects and TJ resident noted, it’s a case of knowing where to go and where not to go.

“There are areas you want to avoid, but if you do you should have a good time,” he said. “It’s a lot like any other city.”

A lot like any other city, plus a football club with a truly unique story.

We’re thrilled to have experienced it and are excited to share the tale of Tijuana’s club without borders with you in a few months.

US Soccer Past and Present: Catching up with Nick Garcia

It’s not everyday you get the chance to chat about the state of U.S. soccer with a former U.S. national team player, MLS Cup Winner and two-time NCAA champion. However, we had the chance to do just that with Nick Garcia recently.

We picked the brain of the former Kansas City, San Jose and Toronto man about what he’s been doing since retiring from the game, as well as the direction the sport in America is headed. With nearly 300 MLS matches under his belt, it’s safe to say Garcia has a unique insight into the domestic game.

What He’s Doing Now
For most athletes, it’s difficult to leave the game when retirement age starts calling. Garcia is no exception. Since he retired in 2010, he’s been spearheading a youth soccer movement in the heart of downtown Kansas City through the Brookside Soccer Club.

While youth soccer clubs in the United States are a dime a dozen, BSC is unique in that it focuses on making soccer accessible and affordable for all, something Garcia believes has opened the sport to inner-city kids who would be unable to participate in soccer programs without BSC.

Rather than unearthing gems for the national team, Garcia and BSC are more focused on simply giving kids a chance to put themselves into a positive environment.

“We’re not trying to create the next Beckham or Messi,” Garcia said. “It’s about helping kids who don’t have access to soccer.”

One of the reasons Garcia contends that BSC is so important to growing soccer in the Kansas City area is that the organization isn’t bogged down by some of the challenges other groups face. For example, the local school system has struggled financially in recent years, making independent entities such as BSC all the more important for the sport’s success in the region.

In 2010, the Kansas City Public School District shuttered 29 of the city’s 61 schools as a result of a skyrocketing $50 million budget deficit.

Over the last decade, BSC has seen substantial growth in the number of kids involved in its various programs. According to Garcia, nearly 2,500 Kansas City-area youths participate in BSC. One of the main catalysts beind the organization’s expansion in recent years has been BSC’s move to Swope Park, an inner-city field complex that Garcia and others have helped revitalize.

However, the sport’s local growth certainly hasn’t been hampered by the fact that Sporting Kansas City has undergone an incredible transformation in recent years, a fact that isn’t lost on Garcia.

A New Era for Sporting KC
Although he played for three MLS clubs, Garcia is best known for his seven-year tenure with Kansas City, in which he played more than 200 MLS matches for the then Wizards.

In his first season (2000) the club won the MLS Cup, and Garcia would be fortunate enough to play in another MLS Cup final in 2004, despite falling short to D.C. United. However, the club’s fortunes slowly declined, but Garcia never lost faith in the team, the fans and most importantly, the ownership.

“They have phenomenal owners,” Garcia said. “They really have put their money where their mouth is.”

In fact, Garcia noted that despite the challenges the Kansas City franchise has faced in recent years, stable ownership has been a constant, allowing the club to rebrand as Sporting Kansas City.

The United States, Latin America and the Battle for Talent
As for where the sport is heading in the United States, Garcia believes the MLS will continue to face stiff competition from other countries when it comes to recruiting talent. However, that battle for top players won’t only be waged on a trans-atlantic front. Rather, the MLS will need to compete with Latin American leagues and clubs as well as European outlets.

In particular, Garcia highlighted the fact that many Latin American markets are already ahead of the curve when it comes to beating out the MLS. Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and Mexico, for example, boast well-established leagues that have been around for decades, something the MLS simply can’t match. Also, the notable success of Latino clubs in the Copa Libertadores and the CONCACAF Champions League make them more attractive to many players.

Despite those disadvantages, Garcia points to a non-sporting factor as to why the MLS can out duel the Latin American countries.

"If you're a player, you come here not to springboard your career but to live the American dream," said Garcia.

More competitive salaries, social stability and even anonymity are big draws for talented foreigners, particularly those from South and Central America. One example Garcia pointed to was that of Guillermo Barros Schelotto, a former Boca Juniors legend from Argentina who played for the Columbus Crew for three seasons from 2007 to 2010. A major influence in his extended stay in American was the fact that he could walk around his neighborhood and city without being bombarded by fans. Similar factors attracted a certain Jurgen Klinsmann to sunny California when the German's playing career came to an end.

Guillermo Barros Schelotto was attracted to the MLS by America's treatment of footballers. 

Guillermo Barros Schelotto was attracted to the MLS by America's treatment of footballers. 

Simply put, the quality of life is something that the United States can dangle as a carrot that some regions of the world can not. Even so, there is much work to be done.

"The farm system isn't there yet," Garcia asserted as he discussed U.S. Soccer's struggle to develop a talent pipeline. “But ten years from now, we will be amazed at the conversation we will have about talent development.”

From the fledgling MLS academy system to the much maligned American college set up, developing talent in an organized and consistent manner is perhaps the largest task at hand for American soccer leaders.

However, Garcia's story shows that soccer is indeed growing in America, a fact that most people, soccerphiles or not, are starting to realize. In the wake of a successful playing career, Garcia has been able to ease into his post-playing life while staying heavily involved in the sport.

In the past, other American soccer players may not have had such a luxury. Perhaps their only chance to remain in the game was to pick up a college coaching gig or find one of the few punditry jobs available in the country. Garcia's foray into an expanding grassroots soccer organization such as BSC shows that the sport is on the up-and-up in the United States, for players and supporters of all ages.

Sights & Scenes from USA-South Korea Pre-Match Party

We sent our shooter to the USA vs South Korea match earlier this month to grab as much b-roll as possible of the American Outlaws, and general U.S. Supporter culture. Here's a glimpse at what we got, and a look at how we as Americans celebrate soccer. No shortage of smiles, beer games, and tequila here. A pretty accurate depiction of how us 'Muricans like to party.

Fútbol & Friends in Anemona, El Salvador

Captura de pantalla 2014-02-21 a las 11.47.23.png

*A short video of Petar's experience with fútbol's impact in Anemona is forthcoming! Stay tuned.

Our producer Petar has been spending this week digging gardens for the people of Anemona, El Salvador, a shanty town outside the capital of San Salvador. It's such a blip you can't even find it on Google Maps.

But like so many impoverished places in Latin America, Anemona is another example where soccer provides an escape. Extreme poverty and daily incidents of gang violence may cripple this town, but fútbol makes it smile.

Crammed in between the Pan-American highway and some old railroad tracks, you'll notice the bright spots in this tin-roofed village: fruits and fútbol shirts. Here are a few pics that capture the latter.

BarcaBoy.png
MCFCsalvador.png

American Fútbol is on a mission to give you an authentic glimpse inside more Latin American pueblos like Anemona through the lens of soccer. Be a part of our project and make a donation here.

Messiboy.png