NY Hondurans Brave the Cold for Soccer

 Teams line up before kickoff. (image via me)

Teams line up before kickoff. (image via me)

It’s an unseasonably cold Saturday in October at Ferry Point Park in the Bronx and the harsh wind lashes unmercifully, punishing anyone who isn’t completely covered with clothing from head to toe. The ground is still wet as a result of the previous day’s rain, and grey clouds hang low and threatening. Ten Honduran men, all in their 20s, stand in a circle, hands tucked deeply in their coat pockets. They’re jumping up and down, moving side-to-side, and shuffling back and forth on their feet; anything to take their minds off the cold.

After a few moments, an older-looking man arrives and drops a large duffle bag onto the ground. The young men open up the bag and start rummaging through its contents. Each of them picks out a polyester soccer shirt and matching shorts. The men then show their utter contempt for the frigid conditions by peeling off their layers of clothes, one by one, in the middle of the park until they’re standing in nothing but their underwear. They put on the shorts and shirt and go into their warm-up drills, a phrase that has special meaning on this day.

“I really hope it doesn’t rain,” said Xiomara Arriola, a Honduran immigrant who founded the New York Honduran Soccer League. Today is the championship game for the league’s two divisions, one for men over the age of 33 and one for men between the ages of 18 and 32. The league is finishing its first season, having started operations in May and is approximately 75 to 80 percent Honduran. A previous league for Honduran immigrants ran from 2003 until 2006, when it went out of business.

“There was a massive amount of illegal acts going on. Illegal vending, drinking during and after the games, players getting into fights, the league never cleaned up the park after the matches. It was a total mess,” said Jimi Hughes, Founder of the Ferry Point Park West Coalition. Arriola has taken pains to ensure that those mistakes do not repeat themselves with her fledgling league, which hopes to add divisions for women and teenagers next year. Arriola says that she is strict with the players and audience, telling them not to buy from the illegal vendors, to clean up after themselves, and to stay on their best behavior. “Sometimes I’ll come here the next morning and clean up,” she said. “I feel like their mother or auntie sometimes.”

Arriola’s husband, Peter Amaya, is off in the distance, hard at work. He sets up the soccer nets for the goals. He operates the paint machine, drawing the boundaries and lines on the field. In order to save money, rather than hire someone to do this, Amaya simply learned how to do it himself. Mindful of the previous league’s faults, he walks along the sideline during the match, picking up stray beer bottles and soda cans. At one point, he even gets physically involved in the match as he breaks up an altercation between a player and one of the referees.

“That stuff happens,” he says with a shrug. “Once the blood starts pumping, it’s easy to lose your temper.”

Amaya explained that he and his wife have to do a lot of the work themselves because they don’t charge membership dues. “We only charge each team $60 per match so that we can pay the referees. That’s important since the referees have to get paid. We keep a portion of that to pay for the trophies, but that’s it,” Amaya said.

Slowly, but surely, the park starts to fill up with over 100 Hondurans. Some of them set up canopies so that they can protect their barbeque grills from the gusts of wind cascading off the banks of the neighboring East River. Others stake out prime real estate along the edges of the worn-out soccer field that has so little grass on it, it could be mistaken for a mud wrestling pit.

“Good thing it isn’t raining,” Arriola said with a smile.

Despite the weather, the Hondurans are laughing and having a good time. Braving the near-freezing temperatures in order to watch amateur soccer makes sense, considering how much Hondurans love soccer. Soccer is, far and away, the most popular sport in Honduras. In fact, some historians believe that a pair of hotly contested World Cup qualifying matches between the two countries helped lead to the 1969 war between Honduras and El Salvador, causing the conflict to be dubbed “The Football War.” Soccer has also acted as a unifying force. When Honduras qualified for the World Cup earlier in the week, thousands of Hondurans took to the streets to celebrate in a rare moment of unity for the divided country. Honduras has been in turmoil ever since June, when a coup d'état resulted in the overthrow of the country's democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya.

As the smell of barbeque chicken wafts through the air, temporarily replacing the chilly and unforgiving wind, a loud cheer erupts from the field. Honduran Sports has won the over-33 league title, defeating Marathon in a penalty shootout. The players celebrate wildly and parade around the field, posing for pictures. Arriola poses with them and then presents them with the trophy.

“I’m so glad it didn’t rain,” Arriola said with a smile.

Victor Li

chicago, il