How A Bethesda Academy Player Being Deported Can Make us Better
(Note: This is an Op-Ed piece. The views expressed in this article are my views and beliefs only. I plan on bringing up the sensitive topic of race in soccer, and would not feel right expressing my views and opinions without sharing my past experiences. I am not writing this to promote a political agenda.)
Back in January, when current president Donald Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United State of America, thousands (and in DC, millions) protested against his victory in the 2016 Presidential Elections, for a number of different reasons. This isn’t going to be a history or sociology lesson, it was just earlier this year and you already know about everything that happened by now. Our country has been divided based on political party affiliations, with the subject of race being the elephant/donkey in the room.
Part of Trump’s political agenda during his campaign was to enforce the deportation of illegal immigrants, primarily those with criminal backgrounds who he and his supporters believe are a danger to our country.
On Monday, news started making its way around Twitter that Lizandro Claros, who this past season played for Bethesda’s u18 USSDA squad, and his older brother Carlos were detained by ICE following a routine check-in with immigration officials and were scheduled to be deported back to their home country of El Salvador.
Lizandro, listed as a defender on the team’s website, has been with Bethesda since 2015-16, making 24 appearances in 2015-16 and 21 appearances this past season. In other words, he has been a pretty integral part of a squad which managed to make the USSDA playoffs this past season.
Lizandro and his brother were deported back to El Salvador on Wednesday, despite numerous rallies and media reports making the argument that the young man deserved to stay in the country and fulfill his dream of playing college soccer at Louisburg College in North Carolina. Lizandro does not have a criminal record.
I coached as a volunteer in the Development Academy for 2 seasons, and it’s a LOT of work. 4 training sessions every week, travelling out of state every other weekend for away matches, etc. Competing in US Soccer Development Academy, while also fulfilling responsibilities as a student athlete, is something that Lizandro obviously worked very hard at in order to achieve his dream of playing college soccer, a dream which will apparently not become a reality after all.
DMV Soccer: The D is for Diversity
I’m a big goofy white guy who can’t dance or dunk, despite being 6’2″… seriously, as white as they come. I grew up playing youth soccer in PG County, in an era where simply finding a local soccer team to play for was difficult. There weren’t 2 or 3 travel clubs in every county in those days. You couldn’t watch EPL matches on television, big clubs didn’t come here for their Summer Tours, and 90% of Americans at this time probably thought soccer was the most boring sport ever played.
In PG County during the 90’s, my options were basically to play for a local rec team like Fort Washington or Waldorf, or if your parents had time and money (they did not), they could drive you all the way to Bethesda or Columbia. I was lucky enough to grow up playing soccer in a racially diverse area, where I was able to learn more about other cultures and get others’ perspectives on life.
Fact: DC, Maryland, and Virginia are among the most diverse states in the country. According to a recent report, Maryland is the 5th most diverse state in the country, with Virginia coming in at 14. Montgomery County is home to some of the most diverse cities in the country, along with Washington, DC.
Fact: Soccer is referred to as the World’s Game because of the cultural diversity that comes along with playing or watching the sport.
That being said, playing soccer in the DMV allows kids and coaches to interact with teammates and parents from diverse backgrounds that they may not have otherwise interacted with in normal day-to-day life.
THIS IS WHAT MAKES PLAYING SOCCER (IN THE DMV) SO GREAT.
One quick personal story. My younger brother and I grew up playing with/against 2 brothers from Honduras, Danny and Hector Funez. Anybody familiar with PG County Soccer in those days knows how good of a player Danny Funez was. Dude could play, which is all I cared about when it came to race, and he was the same way. “Game recognizes game”, no matter where you’re from or what color your skin is.
Fast forward to 2013, my brother and I were at the USA vs El Salvador Gold Cup Quarterfinal match at M&T Stadium. USA won the game 5-1, but the main story was the fact that the majority of those in attendance were not USA supporters. I guess I should have done a better job researching where we’d be sitting when I bought tickets, because we were practically the only USA fans in our entire section.
Around halftime, I looked down to a lower section of seats, and for the first time in probably 10 years I saw Danny and Hector sitting with a large section of Honduras fans who were coming to watch the second match, Honduras vs Costa Rica. My brother and I went down to say hello, and they both embraced us like no time was lost at all.
Later in the second half, when the US scored, someone in the section above us threw (what smelled like) an open beer towards the group of El Salvador fans below us. A few of them looked up at my brother and I saying we threw it (we didn’t, we weren’t that stupid). I think El Salvador was out of the game by this point, and it was obvious that these guys were a few beers deep and wanted to start some problems….which was unfortunate for us, there were a LOT of them and only 4 of us (my brother and I, his wife, and my female friend).
Things started getting a little tense. I glanced down to where Danny and Hector were sitting, and they must have seen some of the El Salvador fans turning and pointing to us because they already had their group of friends standing up, ready to come give us some back-up.
Danny looked at me and said “you guys good?”. I gave him a shrug like “yeah, we’re cool” trying to diffuse the situation. Luckily things calmed down, and we got out of there once the final whistle blew, but the fact that Danny and Hector would round up a group of a group of guys from Honduras who didn’t really know us, and were ready to help out these two white guys who their friend hasn’t seen in 10 years… it’s something that I still think about. Danny didn’t have a ton of white friends growing up, and I didn’t have a ton of Honduran friends. We grew up with completely different backgrounds. But we grew up playing together, respected each other, and still to this day have each other’s backs.
I still think about this, and if I didn’t grow up playing soccer in the DMV, I would never have been lucky enough to have met such a diverse group of people in my lifetime.
Using Soccer as an Outlet
Playing soccer is more than just a sport sometimes. It’s a way for young people to express themselves, and escape certain real-life dilemmas that can take a mental and emotional toll. During a difficult time for our country… reports of a potential war on the horizon, and with racial tension at seemingly an all-time high, it’s extremely important, in my opinion, for youth players to have access to a productive outlet like playing soccer without outside issues contaminating their experiences.
Today’s news that Lizandro has been deported, after working so hard to become a college soccer player next season, catapults real-life politics into the protective bubble of playing soccer, and affects more than just Hispanic families who are worried that the same thing might happen to members of their communities and families.
Hopefully people understand that Lizandro spent practically every day of these past 2 years with teammates and coaches from all different backgrounds, becoming more of a family member than just a teammate. I cannot imagine having to watch a teammate that I grew up playing with forced to leave the country, for a reason that many believe is unjust. And even the thought of a player that I have coached going through something like what Lizandro and his family have gone through this week…well, hopefully today’s news makes everyone appreciate their teammates and coaches just a little more.
Props to Coach Ney and the entire Bethesda Soccer Club for stepping up and speaking out on Lizandro’s behalf. Many coaches would have taken the high road and stayed away from such a politically-sensitive topic, but Bethesda coaches Matt Ney, Jonathon Colton, and Bethesda Soccer club as an organization stepped up and did everything they could to attempt to convince the authorities that Lizandro should be allowed to pursue his dream.
People Fear The Unknown
I’ve played soccer since I was 6 years old. This year will make it 30 years since I started playing, and through all of this time I have realized two things:
- I am very proud to have played with, and coached, people from such a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, and
- There are a lot of people in our country who haven’t had these same experiences.
If anything positive can come from today’s news, it’s that we can all make a better effort to understand where others are coming from. Politics may have the country divided, but playing soccer is a common bond that can carry on for longer than you realize.
We can all use today’s news to appreciate each other, treat each other with a little more respect, and not take each other for granted. Only one thing truly brings us all together, and that is the game of soccer.