This Love Is Not For Cowards

Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juarez

by Robert Andrew Powell

This Love Is Not for Cowards

Paperback, 368 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $17 | purchase


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Book Summary

As Mexico descends into a feudal narco-state — one where cartels, death squads, the army and local police all fight over billions of dollars in profits from drug and human trafficking — the border city of Juarez has been hit hardest of all. Yet more than a million people still live there. They even love their impoverished city, proudly repeating its mantra: "Amor por Juarez," or "Love for Juarez." And nothing exemplifies the spirit and hope of Juarenses more than the Indios, the city's beloved but hard-luck soccer team.

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Excerpt: This Love Is Not For Cowards

Chapter 1


Marco Vidal is short. He's barely five foot five, and light, just 125 pounds. Coaches tend to frown on Marco's size, but in soccer his stature is not necessarily bad news; taller players have been known to envy Marco's low center of gravity. His torso is one solid brick, all power. Wide shoulders taper to forearms that can easily swat a baseball over a fence. His slightly bowed legs bulge with the muscle of a man who paid for his house with his footwork. I've watched him practice for a couple weeks now, always enjoying the experience. He's talkative on the field. Pass it. You have time. Forward. Back. He acts like a quarterback of sorts, a field leader. Most notably, he's calm when he gets the ball. That's the admirable aspect of his game. He collects and distributes passes without appearing stressed. His cool lowers the temperature.

It's cold already. Winter. I'd charted the weather before my move, so I knew what to expect in January Juarez, a desert settlement more than a half mile above sea level. It's another thing to actually stand outside as an arctic wind rushes across the practice field. Arctic? Antarctic? Where is this cold wind coming from? Snow dusts the squat and cinnamon Juarez Mountains. For the past two hours I've watched Marco and his teammates swoosh around in padded parkas. They wear spandex tights under their shorts. Ears warm beneath half-finished knit hats some players pull down to cover their necks. Marco roams the midfield, specifically the defensive midfield. He rarely pushes forward on the attack. In his three-year career with the Indios, Marco has scored exactly zero goals. Scoring is not in his job description. He's more of a courier, the link between the defense and the offense. I like to think of him as a circuit breaker. What he does, very well, is slow the pace, drop the drama. After chilling everybody out, he moves the ball up ahead, usually to Edwin Santibanez, a midfielder with a more offensive mind-set. Edwin then leads an assault on goal, or tries to. There's no flash in Marco's game, certainly no glamour. He doesn't seem to do a whole lot out there, actually. I've watched enough soccer to appreciate that Marco's role is subtle, and difficult. He happens to make it look easy.

That apparent ease is why he is often underestimated as a player, I believe. Throughout his career, whenever his teams have switched head coaches, Marco has tended to fall out of the lineup. Do we not have someone taller than this guy? Yet after a few weeks of play, after an injury or poor performance by whoever surpassed him on the depth chart, Marco is given a chance. He usually makes the most of it. That the Indios have just hired a new coach, Pepe Trevino, and that the new coach isn't yet sold on his undersize midfielder, is just Marco's lot in life. Trevino played Marco for less than half of last week's exhibition victory over old nemesis Leon. There's a final preseason game coming up this Sunday afternoon. After watching several intrasquad scrimmages and after talking to journalists hanging out at practice with me, I'm wondering if the American will even see the field.

"You ready?" Marco asks. Practice is over. He's wondering if I'm up for lunch, the next agenda item on the routine we've fallen into. The Indios' workday starts around ten in the morning, ending about thirty minutes after noon. Marco showers, gels his black hair into a fauxhawk, and pulls on his civilian uniform of Dolce & Gabbana jeans and white Gucci sneakers, the labels large and visible. He perches Armani sunglasses at his hairline and straps a big white Diesel watch around his wrist. Hugging his chest, almost always, is an Ed Hardy T-shirt. Marco wears Ed Hardy nearly every day, reflexively, as if for his own protection. I want to tell him the Ed Hardy trend is sooooooo played out, but I've already learned that Mexico is where American fads go for an encore. People still use the yellow pages down here. The Blockbuster Video near my apartment remains crowded. The other reporters at practice often wear those khaki "I'm a reporter" safari vests I haven't seen on Anderson Cooper in years. And Marco is not alone in his Ed Hardy love.

All the Indios dress alike, as if incapable of individual action. ("I can tell they're soccer players even before I know they're soccer players," says Marco's young wife, Dany.) Wearing his gaudy T-shirts with pride, Marco might share a taco or two with an Armani Exchange'd teammate while they watch European soccer on the clubhouse television. Soon enough, he'll grab his jacket and a winter hat, and he and I will go for a proper lunch.

I need the ride more than the food. I didn't bring my car with me to Juarez. I wanted to settle in the city before importing what is easily my most valuable possession. In my car's absence, I'd hoped to get around on ruteras, the cheap and privately owned school buses found in many Mexican cities. Yet on the day I signed a lease on an apartment, the driver of a Juarez rutera was shot dead, along with three passengers. One day after that, the driver of another bus was murdered. Extortions, it was explained to me. Ladrones have started demanding payments from pharmacies and restaurants and even from mom-and-pop bus drivers. ("There's a new class of criminal taking advantage of the crisis. They know the cops can't stop them or catch them or do anything at all to deter them.") Better to hitch a ride to practice from someone in the Indios' front office, and to catch a ride home from Marco.

"I had an Audi with these great rims that I bought after we made it to the Primera," he says as we slip out of the training complex. He's explaining why my car, which isn't actually all that nice, might still be too nice for Juarez. The Indios' traveling secretary, Gabino Amparan, had his car stolen out of the parking lot of the stadium where the Indios play their home games. Team attorney Mario Boisselier downgraded to a Ford Taurus after his BMW was carjacked, then downgraded further to a dented Toyota with a cracked windshield after the Ford was stolen from him, also at gunpoint. Then it was Marco's turn. "I was stopped at a light, in traffic you know, when this car sped up and boxed me in on the right," Marco says. "A gunman was leaning out the window. Before I could react, there was a gunman on my left, too. The guy on my left barked at me to get out. His gun poked me in the chest. I grabbed my phone with my wallet, like I always do, and the guy said, 'Un-uh, drop everything.' So I dropped everything and they took off in my car."

From This Love Is Not For Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juarez by Robert Andrew Powell. Copyright 2012 by Robert Andrew Powell. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA.

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