One of the first things Izidro Pérez did four weeks ago when he arrived from South Carolina was to look for a soccer team he could play for in Chattanooga.
“As an immigrant (playing soccer) is like a dream come true,” the Mexican native said on a recent Sunday afternoon during halftime of a game between his team, the San Luis, and the Salmantino.
“It’s an activity for the entire family,” he added, as families around him enjoyed cold beverages and tacos sold in the field at Orchard Knob Middle School.
As the Hispanic population increases in the area, so does the presence of soccer, a sport many Hispanics grew up playing.
On championship days, Sergio Ramos, president of the Chattanooga Star Soccer League, said 300 to 500 people gather to cheer for their teams.
Evelio Guerrero is president of the Premier Chattanooga Soccer League, the first Hispanic league that formed in Chattanooga.
“We have it within us since we are small,” he said, referring to the sport’s popularity in Latin American countries. “It’s played on the streets all the time.”
Bob Saylors, director of recreation centers and programs with the Chattanooga Parks and Recreation Department, said his staff has dealt with several independent groups that play at Boulevard Park and at East Lake Park, predominantly in southeast Chattanooga, since he started working for the department one and a half years ago.
BY THE NUMBERS
* Number of Hispanic soccer leagues in Chattanooga: 2
* Number of Hispanic soccer teams in Chattanooga: 43
* Number of games played on a given weekend: 27
“I’m not familiar with any of the Latino soccer in other parts of the city, but I do know it’s growing (here) as it’s growing everywhere,” he said, “and we are trying to plan and prepare ourselves to have some better fields and facilities for soccer.
“There’s such a limited number of fields available. ... We are basically having to make use of what we have available,” he added. “We have to do a better job, provide first-class facilities. There are some good athletes out there. They play very seriously; they play their heart out.”
La Paz de Dios, an organization that works with the Hispanic community, estimates there are about 15,000 Hispanics living in Chattanooga. U.S. Census figures show there were about 8,000 Hispanics living in the county in 2000.
Since the first league was created three years ago, the number of Hispanic soccer teams has grown from a dozen to about 43. In Dalton, where Guerrero lives, organized Hispanic soccer has been played for over 15 years, and there are three leagues and more than 250 teams, he said.
“After many years of playing and being a referee for teams in Dalton, I decided to start a league here in Chattanooga,” Guerrero said, “because a lot of people would tell me there needed to be one.”
A year and a half later, Sergio Ramos, a Guatemalan native who lives in Chattanooga, decided to create the Chattanooga Star Soccer League.
“I never thought I would start my own league,” Ramos said. “I had always enjoyed playing. I even have a team that plays in Dalton. But since we are here (in the United States), I thought we should do everything we can to try to improve the sport.”
Hispanic teams have attracted players from a wide array of countries, he said.
“Soccer is very important not only for Hispanics. We have players from Russia, Jamaica, from here (Chattanooga), Honduras, Brazil, Guatemala and Mexico” among other countries, he said.
Saylors said the growth of soccer in the area among non-Hispanics is something relatively recent.
“It’s a fantastic sport and is one that will become more popular,” he said. “It’s just the fact that in the South the traditional sports are baseball, football and basketball. Those that you see on television and that get more of the news coverage have been the choice somewhat of Southerners.”
If there’s a difference between soccer played among Hispanics and non-Hispanics, Saylors said, it would be the fact that Hispanics were essentially born with it.
“It’s more tradition — what you are brought up to know and understand and play,” he said. “If you grow up with baseball, you play baseball. If you grow up with soccer, you play soccer.”
That’s one of the reasons why Arturo Bricio, a soccer fan and former player, is a faithful follower of the sport.
“I’m here every Sunday, even if it’s to see just one game,” he said on a very hot Sunday afternoon while he watched the game between Salmantino and the San Luis.
“Since we were athletes ourselves, we have it very deep within us, and we want to continue living it.”
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...