The Hometown Crowd

A young soccer player lives out his dream in one of the most dangerous places in the world: Juarez.

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GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT the "Lost Cause" episode. Now today, even though something appears unwinnable, we are not saying no. For our next story, SNAP JUDGMENT's Nancy Lopez speaks to Marco Vidal. Now because of the violence surrounding characters in this piece, listener discretion is advised.

NANCY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Growing up in Dallas, Marco Vidal's one and only dream was to become a professional soccer player in Mexico. And when he turned 15, his dream almost came true. He was picked up by Los Tigres or the Tigers, a team from northern Mexico. But just when he thought he'd be selected to debut in the major league, new coaches came in, and they sent Marco packing.

MARCO VIDAL: I did not want to know anything about soccer anymore. I didn't go play anywhere. I didn't train anywhere. I didn't want to know anything about the sport. I didn't want it to remind me of how close I was to reach my goal, and things just didn't happen.

LOPEZ: Marco was just a 20-year-old guy living back in Dallas with his parents. He tried to accept a life without soccer - the bright lights, the cheering fans. And so he got a job at a local radio station.

VIDAL: But it wasn't my life. I don't know. I could not forget about the sport. I could not forget about my career. I could not forget about me trying to reach my dream.

LOPEZ: That was until one day, when he got a very unexpected call from a little-known soccer team in Mexico named Los Indios or the Indians.

VIDAL: There was an open spot. They needed somebody in my position out there, that if I wanted to go. A huge smile came into my face, and I remember things - the good things that had happened to me inside the sport.

LOPEZ: The only problem was Los Indios played in one of the deadliest places in the world, Ciudad Juarez, a desert city just a hop across the border from El Paso. Marco didn't know exactly how bad it would be to live there.

VIDAL: What I had Googled a little bit - back in the day was when they used to kill a lot of women, a city not seen very good by the states.

LOPEZ: Still, the potential danger wasn't worth sacrificing his dream.

VIDAL: I didn't want to live in regret. I didn't want to sit in my 30's or in my 40's or - and think, what if I would have gone? What if - and I decided to go down.

LOPEZ: Marco packed his bags and crossed into Juarez. What he found was an unsightly, transient city, a border town full maquiladoras or factories. And when he met Los Indios, he found a team with all the odds stacked up against it. They didn't have the best players, most were young and inexperienced. They were rarely paid on time. In fact, Los Indios had never made it to the majors. No major league team had ever been hosted in the city's 25,000-seat stadium.

VIDAL: But for me, it was a new start. For me, it was a new opportunity.

LOPEZ: After Marco got there, a different type of violence broke out on the streets of Juarez. The Juarez drug cartel started fighting off new rivals who were trying to seize control over their territory. Dead bodies started appearing on the streets.

VIDAL: I mean, there were deaths. There were things happening that I've only seen in movies. It was a crazy place to be in. A crazy time when 6, 7 in the afternoon, you wouldn't see anybody in the streets. You wouldn't see everybody after the light came down. People would, not hide, but avoid violence or avoid things happening out in the streets. People waking up at 5 in the morning and seeing three bodies hanging from a bridge.

LOPEZ: Marco and Los Indios tried to focus on soccer, but violence occurred at every turn. Like one day, when the team was on its way to the stadium.

VIDAL: There was a lot of traffic. We drive by car, a body inside the car with the head decapitated, and things went through my mind. I totally forgot about the game, and I asked myself, what am I doing? Where am I playing? Is it worth going through the risk and living in a city like this?

LOPEZ: But arriving on the soccer field was like entering a sanctuary that protected them from all the brutality. On the green pitch, walled off by the stands, there was no drug war, just the beautiful game of soccer. And Marco thrived on the field. He became the team's strongest player, and they actually began to win some games.

VIDAL: We would step on the field before a match, and the sidelines, or the stadium, or the crowd would not even reach the 5,000. And most people out in the crowd were our family members or friends. But as we started winning, people started to believe in the Indios. I remember looking at the stands. You couldn't fit a soul. The stands were packed, and people would be standing. No one would sit down. And with a packed stadium, the thing was perfect. The team was at its peak.

LOPEZ: Los Indios were winning game after game. There was this kind of hope that was kindled in them and in the city that they could, in fact, win the next championship, which would secure their rise to the majors.

VIDAL: We weren't the best team in the league, but we were the team that wanted it more than anybody else.

LOPEZ: And then at a championship game against a way better team, the unprecedented happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOCCER GAME)

LOPEZ: For the first time ever, Los Indios rose to the major leagues.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOCCER GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Spanish spoken).

VIDAL: So we head back to the city. We couldn't even exit the airport because of the people inside the airport trying to grab us, trying to see us, trying to grab an autograph or picture. And we drive towards the cathedral, and all the streets packed. I mean, the bus cannot go more than 5 to 10 miles an hour because of the people crowding the streets, people trying to jump on the bus. It was like a light - a light to the city. Everyone thought that it was going to change totally what was happening or the bad things that were happening.

LOPEZ: This win proved that good things could be born in Juarez, too. If people had faith in anything, it was in Los Indios. On the streets, the players were treated like rock stars. And so yes, for both Marco and Juarez, there was hope.

VIDAL: I've had a couple people hug me and cried in my arms and say, thank you. Thank you for all these moments. I would be out in the streets 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and headed to a movie. And I wouldn't worry anymore. I would be calm. I would know that I was safe. Things were happening, but they were not happening where I was at.

LOPEZ: Los Indios were the pride of Juarez. And Marco was the pride of Los Indios. He got a promotion and a brand-new house. He met a girl at the gym and fell in love. But this feeling of being invincible, both on and off the field, couldn't last. The fighting between cartels intensified and began to hurt the team. When the second season came around a couple of months later, Los Indios lost their first game, then their second and then their third.

VIDAL: It was hard. The violence did have something to do with our losing streak.

LOPEZ: A couple of the team's players were given death threats. They fled the city. When Los Indios tried to recruit new players to fill their spots, no one accepted. Then armed men gunned down the team's assistant coach at a restaurant. As the drug war closed in around them, even Marco couldn't escape it.

VIDAL: I was headed towards the border. I was preparing to get married. I wanted to ask the person that is now my wife to marry me. I was going to go buy a ring in El Paso. At a red light, a truck crosses, almost hits my car and with a gun pointing out the windshield. And as soon as I turn around, there was another guy with a mask in my windshield with a gun pointing at me and tells me to get out. He put the gun towards my chest and told me to throw the cell phones inside the vehicle so I did.

LOPEZ: One of the men proceeded to get in Marco's car.

VIDAL: Just took off. There was a cop right in front of us. And I ran towards the cop, and he didn't do much. He was just like, it's better just to let them go. And he didn't want to have any problems. I mean, I started shaking. And knowing that I had a gun pointed to my chest kind of frightened me.

LOPEZ: Did you ever consider leaving?

VIDAL: When things started getting bad in the city, I sat down and talked with my family, and thought about moving out. But then I thought and no. I decided to stay because of the love of the team, because of the love of the people that always showed me love as soon as I stepped into Ciudad Juarez.

LOPEZ: But before, when the field was a sanctuary for hope and peace, it was not just part of the urban battlefield, it was becoming too difficult for the team to catch up on all its losses.

VIDAL: We lasted 17 games without scoring a goal in the two seasons. When I would get home and talk to my wife and my parents, and I would be like, I don't know what's happening. I don't know what's happening. I don't know what I can do to better this.

LOPEZ: Los Indios had one game left to salvage the season.

VIDAL: But as soon as we lose a game, I guess that's when all the pressure or the - yeah, all the pressure came out. And we were just like, oh, my God. We couldn't do it anymore. It was all over.

LOPEZ: And like that, Los Indios descended back to the minors, back to where they started. And now Marco had a decision to make. He got a phone call from another team, a much better team still in the major leagues that was hundreds of miles away from Ciudad Juarez. Did he want to join them?

VIDAL: It was a difficult decision for me to make 'cause Indios has always been the team I've always loved, the team that's given me everything, the team that gave me hope. First thing I did was grab my things and head to the airport. And driving to the airport, passed by the stadium and just remembered all those great moments or all those good games we had or the stadium always being packed and realized that it was time. It was time for me to move on. It was a difficult time for me to move on, but if I wanted something good in my career, I had to. I had to go to another place.

WASHINGTON: Thank you, Marco, for sharing your story. Marco Vidal is still playing professional soccer in hopes that, one day, Los Indios will make a comeback. We first heard about Marco's story in Robert Andrew Powell's book "This Love is Not For Cowards." That piece was produced by SNAP JUDGMENT's Nancy Lopez. When SNAP JUDGMENT returns, we're coming back with the sexiest, sultriest, nastiest subject of all time. That's right, math. When SNAP JUDGMENT the "Lost Cause" episode continues, stay tuned.

(MUSIC)

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