League of Nations: Immigrant soccer players from across the globe go balls out at a tiny park in north St. Louis

DeSoto Park

On a recent Sunday in north St. Louis' DeSoto Park, several hundred onlookers are gathered around two rocky soccer fields. On this sun-kissed afternoon they've come to see a group of weekend warriors do battle in the city's most hard-core amateur soccer league: La Liga Latino Americana de Fútbol.

Brian Bourgschulte, a forward for Real Mardel, a squad mostly composed of Saint Louis University alumni and native St. Louisans, has just scored to put his team up 2-0 over Dinamo, a predominantly Hispanic team. After his goal, the brawny Bourgschulte fights for control of the ball with a rail-thin Dinamo player who sports a ponytail.

As he blocks out his opponent, the frustrated foe responds with a kick that deliberately misses the real target — the ball — and lands squarely on Bourgschulte's groin. He crumples in agony, though a split second later he's up, throwing a wild haymaker that gets him ejected, all of which prompts both benches to berate the referee — the Mardel team in English, Dinamo in Spanish.

From the sidelines, Bourgie, as he's known to teammates, pauses amid the jumble of multilingual cursing to discuss the afternoon's roguish play that led to his testicular troubles. "This was only the second red card I've gotten in this league, and I've played 500 games or so. But then again, I've never gotten kicked in the balls intentionally before."

A graduate of Parkway West High School and a full-time soccer bum, Bourgschulte plays in two other weekly leagues, but says La Liga is "by far the best in terms of competitiveness."

Nearly two decades old, the league has grown from a weekend assemblage of 4 teams — all hailing from the same small town in southwestern Mexico — to 28 teams, with more than 1,000 players representing nearly every corner of the map: Nigeria, Kenya, Iraq, Brazil and Hungary among them. Virtually every country in Latin America fields at least one player, while two, El Salvador and Honduras, have their own teams.

"The more competitive the soccer game is, the more heated it gets. Plus people from Europe and Mexico, or South America, they take the soccer so serious," says the league's president, Alberto Gutierrez. "Generally speaking, they want to win no matter what."

The smell of Mexican food wafts across DeSoto Park, emanating from food vendors who, on soccer Sundays, throw up tents around the fields to cater to hungry players and their families.

With a propane-powered griddle for warming tortillas and a barbecue to grill large cuts of flank steak, one family cooks authentic asada tacos: They chop the meat into small pieces on a wooden block and sprinkle it with onions and cilantro. Others sell traditional Mexican street fare including bags of fresh fruit and chicharrones — crisp-fried pork skins.

A few blocks from the boarded-up buildings along Martin Luther King Boulevard, the soccer fields in this African-American neighborhood are surrounded by mixed-income public housing. Here, in the shadows of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, is an unexpected place to find such a large congregation of the area's Hispanic population on a Sunday afternoon.

Though there's a diverse mix of players, virtually no African-Americans play in the league. Occasionally neighbors will gather on their porches across the street and half-heartedly pay attention to the action. It seems the only local to interact with the Hispanic crowd is a haggard man who rides his bicycle around and collects recyclable beer cans that have been discarded by spectators.

"It's like everybody knows they're coming on Sunday so everybody else stays out of the park," says April Ford-Griffin, the 5th Ward alderwoman who lives a few blocks from DeSoto. "I don't know what the divide is. It doesn't take a lot of equipment to play soccer, but even so, a lot of African-American children aren't exposed to soccer."

Depending on the popularity of the teams playing, crowds of several hundred people might encircle the fields, from the season's beginning in April to its October finale. Grizzled old Mexican men pace the sidelines, drinking cans of Busch beer and heckling the referees in Spanish. Money slyly changes hands in friendly wagers. Women line up in chairs to gossip and watch their children and husbands play.

"No girls on the field," Alberto Gutierrez intones in accented English. "The men don't feel comfortable playing against girls. One time a girl played for a couple games; she was good, she played in college, but the teams didn't want it."

It's a good atmosphere now," adds Gutierrez, whose broad smile reveals a gold-capped tooth. "It wasn't like that years ago. This used to be empty, ugly housing projects and the field used to be like a trash can. Little by little it's changing."

To the chagrin of many in the league, what hasn't changed is the poor quality of the playing fields. During halftime at one recent match, players were forced to excavate two chunks of concrete the size of dictionaries from midfield and carry them off the pitch.

"There's a sewer lid on that field," complains Carlos Gomez, coach of the team Real El Llano. "The only thing holding the league back is the fields."

Gutierrez insists that DeSoto, as well as Marquette Park, just off of Grand Boulevard in south St. Louis and Jefferson Barracks Park in South St. Louis County, are really the only soccer fields available year-round in the area. He says he's asked the city to work on leveling and restriping, but to no avail.

"We had to do our own repairs on the side on Saturday," Gutierrez says. "St. Louis is a baseball town; you look at those fields, and they're flat and perfectly lined. Soccer — they don't care."

The style of play within the ranks of La Liga Latino Americana de Fútbol alternates between fluid, efficient performances and clunky, lumbering ones. For every man who's in peak shape, there's the guy with an ample beer belly. Many players boast college or semiprofessional soccer experience, while many others have never advanced beyond pickup games.

Still, Tom Lutkar, a referee for many of the league's matches and the district administrator for the U.S. Soccer Federation, says the quality of soccer in La Liga is at times topnotch.

"They have an amazing first touch. It's a quick tap-tap-tap. You very seldom see a wild kick," recounts Lutkar. "They have phenomenal ball control and a passion for the game. The level of play depends on which team, but sometimes their skill level is as good as any area college."

The potential of La Liga's untapped talent is what first lured Fernando Rodriguez, head coach of the men's and women's soccer teams at Florissant Valley Community College, to referee at DeSoto. A native of Madrid who immigrated to the United States in the 1970s, Rodriguez wanted to recruit the league's most gifted young players to his program.

"I saw some kids that were very, very good, that were seventeen, eighteen, nineteen years old," says Rodriguez, who has lost all but a trace of his Madrileño accent. "They have the talent to play in college, but they're either in this country illegally or have been out of school for years."

Case in point: Darwen Albarada. At seventeen, Albarada is one of the league's youngest players. He starts on the front line of Catrachos Boys, a team of Hondurans that is currently in sixth place. Baby-faced and no more than five-feet,-six-inches tall even with his spiked black hair, Albarada easily holds his own with men twice his age. Asked how he does it, he says in Spanish, "It's simple, they pass me the ball."

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Albarada is Jose Luis Gonzalez. Gonzalez is 61 and by far the league's oldest player. With a red bandana hiding his gray hair, he says modestly, "I can still run a little bit."

Gonzalez, who plays for the bottom-tier team Zamora, also has one of the most impressive soccer résumés in the league, even if it's somewhat dated. He has a background in professional soccer, having played two seasons for the Mexican club Pachuca in 1965 and 1966. After immigrating to the United States, he signed on to play for the St. Louis Stars in the now-defunct North American Soccer League. Gonzalez scored a goal in the only game he appeared in during the 1971 season.

Now living in Cahokia, where he operates a machine at a copper refining plant, Gonzalez plays recreational soccer not only in La Liga Latino, but also in a 60-and-older league based in St. Charles. "I'll keep playing as long as I don't have injuries, as long as I stay healthy," Gonzalez says. "I love the game. I don't know when I'll quit. Every now and then I pull a muscle, but that's normal. I did that when I was young."

There is no shortage of colorful clubs and players in La Liga. Cobras, currently second in league standings, wears the same uniforms as the elite Champions League team FC Barcelona. Their starting lineup features Hispanic and African players from six different countries. One team member, like their squad's European counterpart, is a Brazilian with a curly ponytail. Naturally, his teammates call him "Dinho," after Barcelona's Brazilian star Ronaldinho.

With players from so many different countries on the field, communication would seem to pose a problem. But the players say it works — as long as they're wearing the same colors.

"It's not hard; it's just the language of soccer," says Barry Meneh, a Nigerian who is one of five African-born players on the club Olimpico. "We don't have to be able to talk to each other for them to give me the ball."

"It does cause problems sometimes," counters Rafael Lopez, a former player for team Alianza who now maintains the league's website, www.futbolstl.com. "If you say a word in a match, the other team's player thinks it's against them."

What is now La Liga Latino was founded in the early 1990s when a small group of friends and family, almost all from the small town of El Llano in the southwestern Mexican state of Michoacán, would gather to play soccer in Tower Grove Park.

The dramatic changes in the area's Hispanic population over the years help explain the expansion. Census statistics show that from 1990 to 2006, St. Louis' Latin-American population doubled from 15,000 to 28,000.

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.

"One of the first teams was from an area around Carondelet Park that was predominantly Spanish. They had the Spanish Society, which fielded some pretty good teams," Lyons says. "The church is where soccer started. Most of the parishes were made up of immigrants: Irish, German, Italian, English. They gathered socially to play soccer."

Lyons explains that the early amateur leagues set the foundation for St. Louis' place in soccer history. The American team that upset England in the 1950 World Cup consisted largely of Italians from the Hill neighborhood. The Cinderella story, widely regarded as the greatest upset in soccer history — England was a 3-1 favorite to win the Cup; the United States, a 500-1 underdog — was the subject of the Hollywood film The Miracle Match. The movie was filmed partially in Marquette Park, one of the secondary fields where La Liga plays each week.

"Play was a little bit rougher back then than it is now," David Litterer, coauthor of The Encyclopedia of American Soccer History and an expert on St. Louis soccer history, says when reached by phone. "Some people liked to have a good fight. The referees weren't cracking down on fighting as much, and it was something the fans could get into."

While everyone agrees Gutierrez has helped curb fighting in La Liga by issuing fines and suspensions, hard tackles and scuffles are still common occurrences. In many cases, however, there's a reason for the fiery physical play that goes beyond competitive spirit.

"The original four teams are all from that one town," says Lippert, the former Chivas goalkeeper. "For them it's a family rivalry. They've got cousins on the other team. They don't want to lose that game."

"The thing I've learned from working these games is that Mexico is not homogenous," adds Roger Morley, a referee in the league. "There tends to be regional affiliations and teams don't always like each other because of that."

Morley and other officials say that at times the criticism of the referees by the players and crowd has gotten out of hand.

"If they want to swear at me they have to do it in English," says Morley. "And I've had that happen. There were 22 players out there and I was the only one who didn't speak Spanish. I made a call and one guy looked me in the eye and said, 'Fuck you, Ref' in perfect English."

A message to the teams recently posted on the league's website by Gutierrez addresses the officials' concerns. "The referees told us that there are too many complaints and insults toward them," the notice reads. "They advise us that if we do not take care of controlling the situation they are not going to help us anymore."

Following the plea is a list written in Spanish that describes several incidents that prompted the intervention, highlighted by a May 18 game in which, following an ejection, "The expelled tried to attack the referee with their shoes."

Even with such confrontations Lutkar, a referee himself, says he admires the players' competitive zeal and La Liga's generally family-friendly environment. "During the playoffs you get people lined up, cheering. You can't even get up next to the field; it's almost a festival atmosphere," he says. "You can see how much passion they have when they get a chance to play organized."

Meanwhile, Gutierrez says he hopes the league will continue to grow, perhaps with future generations of players who aren't quite so rough.

"A lot of kids go with parents and they've been watching and they want to start in the league. We have a player that's thirteen, and he already wants to join," he says. He pauses and adds, "I like to see the little kids playing soccer. The big ones are too much trouble."

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