By Sam Levin
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With the city's immigration boom, places like DeSoto Park have become the de facto cultural hubs, settings where many go to speak their native tongue, eat familiar foods and engage in their national pastime.
"We have a great time. We're usually hanging out and barbecuing after the game," says Mario Madera, a seventeen-year veteran of the league and a player and coach of the club Necaxa, which borrows its name from a team in the Mexican professional league.
Moreover, for many players, the soccer matches are as integral a part of their lives in America as the jobs they work during the week.
"Most of the guys on my old team worked with me at a landscaping company," says Jesse Lippert, a former player. "They come in and work in the spring and summer for eight months and play soccer. When the grass stops growing, they go home."
The phenomenon of Hispanic immigrants organizing soccer teams is nothing new. La Liga, in fact, isn't the only Hispanic soccer association in the St. Louis area; both Granite City and St. Charles have their own leagues. Still, everyone knows that La Liga is the premier league.
"What impresses me about them is that they're so well-organized," says Minerva Lopez, owner of the soccer-apparel shop Gooolll located on Cherokee Street in the city's Latino hub. "And the talent level is so much higher. I don't know if the other two leagues combined could make a run at the championship in [the La Liga] league."
With a full head of salt-and-pepper hair and cinnamon-colored skin, Alberto Gutierrez, La Liga's president, rarely misses a Sunday match at DeSoto. Arms folded, he methodically paces the sidelines and chats up other regulars in Spanish. Whenever a player draws a red card for hassling officials, an exasperated Gutierrez shakes his head in disappointment.
Now 49, Gutierrez immigrated to Southern California from El Llano when he was 13. He moved to St. Louis in 1980 to work at Norfolk Southern Railway, and he's stayed with the company ever since, raising a family in South St. Louis County.
As the volunteer president of La Liga for the past seven years, he has watched the league grow from a small, almost exclusively Hispanic affair into the vast, multicultural network it is today. In addition to implementing fines and suspensions for fighting and leaving trash after games, he handles all the scheduling and player registration and obtains permits from the City of St. Louis to use the fields.
While he is well liked by most of the players, his tenure as president has been somewhat controversial.
When La Liga first formed, Gutierrez was a player for the club Chivas. Like their namesake in the Mexican professional league, Chivas was a powerhouse, winning the league title three years in a row from 1991 to 1993 and again from 1999 to 2001, and most recently in 2007.
During last year's off-season, Chivas' coach, Javier Lopez, quit the league and took his team with him because of a long-running financial dispute with his former player, Gutierrez.
Lopez alleges that Gutierrez and the league's treasurer, Jesus Magdaleno, are misusing league funds. Reached by phone, Lopez explains that during the 2006 season he paid Gutierrez $75, a sum that he says Gutierrez agreed to hold as a deposit for the upcoming year's league fees.
"The next year, the chicken shit, he denied it. He didn't want to give me the money," Lopez says. "I cannot trust them. We have little problems because I will give them some payment and they never give me any receipt. We ask: Why not make a report of how much is there [in the league fund], how much they spend, and how much is left? The way it looks, it looks like they're using the money for their own."
"We give him receipts, but it's not what he wanted to see," counters Gutierrez, who, along with the treasurer, supervises the league's $20,000 yearly budget. "He wants to have every single penny counted. I give him a report on what we spend and he says it's not right. He wants to micromanage every single penny. I'm not going to be at the soccer field with a receipt whenever they feel like taking it."
Lippert, formerly Chivas' goalkeeper and a favorite player of Lopez's, says the spat between the two old friends has simply gotten out of hand.
"Alberto loves the league," says Lippert. "If you think about all the hours that guy has put in in his life, he doesn't get paid for what he does. It's like $100 they're fighting over. I told coach I'd give it to him myself — just let it go. It's almost petty. It's old rivalries. It's bitterness."
Among the hundreds of framed photographs that blanket the walls of the St. Louis Soccer Hall of Fame is a grainy black-and-white picture from 1934, depicting the club team for the Sociedad Española, the Spanish Society of St. Louis.
Jack Lyons, codirector of the St. Louis Soccer Hall of Fame and its small museum located just off of South Kingshighway, says that immigrants have long been an integral part of St. Louis' rich soccer tradition.
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