Monday, December 1, 2008

HWC 2008: Weblog # 1

Above players Diego, Carlos, Tad, and Jeremy wait for the opening ceremonies with the stars and stripes. It was a long journey to get here. After making the national team and securing travel documents, each player still had to get on the plane and meet the squad in LA. For me and Diego it began in New York:

I carry the warmth of my apartment with me into the cold. Before I arrive at 14th street Union Square, I’ve turned my coat collar up and sped up my pace. I’m blowing big white clouds every fourth step. The warmth I carried with me lasted about block.

The subway station is completely empty. 5 or 6 trains rumble in and and lumber off. No sign of Diego. I walk above ground into the wind and the dark, call Diego’s cell again, more to kill time than in hopes of actually reaching him. 5:30am was the appointed meeting time.

6:10. The phone rings and I walk out again, “Hello.”

“Hello . . . Lorenzo, why don’t you have a warm coat on?”

“Because we are going to Australia,” I say, hanging the up the phone and embracing Diego, who is putting down his phone too.

7 hours later, we relax our shoulders in the LA warmth. We put our jackets in our bags and dig around for our sunglasses.

The LA cabby says, “Diego, that’s my son’s favorite name. He always says, Papa, why you don’t call me Diego?”

“Yeah,” Diego says, “everyone loves my name. They ask me. ‘are you good at soccer like Diego Maradona?’ I say, ‘Yes.Actually I am better. He is old and fat and I am fast and young” Diego laughs and smiles winningly.

In a tight white t-shirt, loose fitting leather jacket and oversize shades, our Diego looks more like a men’s fashion model than a poster boy for homelessness. His eyes are soft and he knows how to communicate familiarity with a friendly wrinkle of the brow. “People look at me and think I’m black,” he expresses. “Then I start speaking Spanish and they are like, ‘What?!’ They don’t know that there a like millions of people like me in Latin America.

At 17 Diego left his relatives’ home and dropped out of high school. For the next 10 years he lived on his own. He ended up a mortgage broker until he lost his job over a year ago. Then he was robbed of all his documents. Without documents even his old employers wouldn’t hire him. He had to check into a shelter. Things went from bad to worse as you might imagine.

Frustrated, Diego’s hackles pricked up at the slightest criticism. He wanted respect, but instead he felt like he was grouped with the rest of the crowd. He was told he had an anger management problem. This made him angry.

In the beginning, Diego said he had better things to do than play soccer. He needed to look for work. Two months later he had only found day labor jobs. Finally he gave into the coach and joined the team for practice. At the Homeless USA Cup in DC this past June, Diego’s off the field frustrations showed up on the field. He complained to referees, yelled at teammates, so much so that I had to pull him aside as organizer. I told him that his attitude was outshining his talent, that it was pity to see. Impressively Diego reversed course. Even the referees singled him out for praise as someone who transformed during the course of the tournament. When Diego was chosen for the national team, he said that the tournament had been a revelation to him: he had no idea how negative and defeatist he had become.

Since the tournament Street Soccer USA fronted Diego the money for his green card application and helped him secure a temporary work permit while he waits for the application to process. Things have been going well. In fact he moved out of the shelter and into small studio just two weeks before the Homeless World Cup competition.

Diego missed much of the action with the team in LA due to a bruised bone in his foot. His immediate challenge is to manage the frustration of being injured. If he recovers he could be a key play in the attack for the US coming opening day of the tournament.

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