By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
When Northern Virginia's Latino soccer leagues kick off the 2008 season early next month, fans of Honduras de Manassas will have to travel outside their base in Prince William County to see their team score goals. So will supporters used to watching Juventus Sure¿o crush the competition in Woodbridge. Devotees of longtime Manassas powerhouse Fiorentina will need to switch allegiance. Their team is sitting out this season.
As Prince William proceeds with its crackdown on illegal immigrants, one result is a shake-up and shrinking of the area's entrenched Hispanic soccer leagues. The reason is simple, organizers say: Players and fans, among them many illegal immigrants, are so worried about being detained by authorities en route to or at games that they are avoiding local fields. Legal immigrants are also wary, for themselves or their illegal relatives, organizers say.
"I have never felt as good as I felt in Manassas," said Hector Bardales, 26, a Sterling mechanic who plays in four of the region's leagues but most loved the crowds who cheered him on when he donned his Honduras de Manassas uniform. But he is in the country illegally, so Manassas is now no man's land, he said. "I would play in any county except Prince William."
Officials have said the policy is not meant to intimidate but to remove illegal immigrants, particularly those who commit crimes. The imperiled leagues draw little sympathy from backers of the county's enforcement program.
"I would hope that the soccer leagues didn't depend on illegal aliens to make them viable," said Greg Letiecq, president of Help Save Manassas, an anti-illegal-immigration group. "It just doesn't seem like a valid reason for overturning the rule-of-law resolution: because without the illegal aliens, the soccer clubs will all fall apart."
Some teams are moving to counties they perceive as safer ground, and several are not playing. Owners of the four main Latino leagues that play in Prince William started last season with 80 teams among them; three weeks before this year's outset, fewer than 50 have signed up. The biggest and oldest league, the Liga de Manassas, is skipping the season because its list of teams dropped by more than half.
Organizers say the decline is a blow not just to soccer but also to Latino immigrants' community life. The weekend games, played at rented county and school fields from April to November, have evolved into events that attract crowds who come to hear bands perform, munch steaming pupusas and let their children play. Leagues hire security guards to curb rowdiness and crews to clean fields postgame. Matches are broadcast on Spanish-language radio.
"Imagine you work all week, Monday to Friday. You need entertainment. Something to distract your mind," drywaller and soccer enthusiast Francisco Carcamo, 31, said on a recent blustery Sunday as he watched two teams scrimmage in Woodbridge, where he lives. He pointed to a boy kicking a ball in the distance. "Look. If the parents don't come, how will the children have fun?"
To try to allay fears, league owners have hosted team meetings at which police have explained the county's policy, which took effect last week and requires officers to check the immigration status of crime suspects who they think might be in the country illegally. There are to be no immigration checkpoints, racial profiling or sidelines raids, the teams were told. The meetings have had little impact, league owners said.
The two hardest-hit leagues are in Manassas, a place organizers say Latino immigrants fear most because it is surrounded by the county and is home to Help Save Manassas.
Freddy Ventura, a businessman who founded the Liga de Manassas 18 years ago, said signs of the soccer slump surfaced in the fall, after county officials approved the crackdown. Crowds who came to matches at Stonewall Jackson High School dwindled from 2,000 to 700, he said. By this time most years, Ventura said, he would have a hefty team waiting list. Instead, only 12 teams committed, down from 28 last year.
Like league owners regionwide, Ventura, whose club is both business and hobby, has lost sponsors as the economy has weakened. He said that he would be willing to lose money on the games but that the interest was just too low.
"I don't have the teams," he said. "This is what they have nicknamed this county: the Devil's County. They call it Condado del Diablo."
Jose Platero said most players on his team, Fiorentina, told him they will no longer go to Manassas because they have moved or fear their fan base has vanished. Melvin Ortez, president of Honduras de Manassas, is switching his team to a Fairfax league because half of his players are illegal immigrants.
Organizers also cite fear among legal immigrants. The main concern, they say, is whether illegal immigrants who are driven to matches by legal immigrants will be asked for immigration papers if the driver is stopped. Legal fans and players also fear their illegal relatives could be detained on the sidelines.
First Sgt. Kim Chinn, a Prince William police spokeswoman, said passengers would be asked for legal documents only if the officer also suspected them of crimes and of being in the country illegally.
Walter Pereira, 30, a construction worker from Honduras in the United States legally, plays for Juventus Sure¿o, which competes in a Fairfax league and, last year, in the Liga de Woodbridge. His brother Hernan Pereira, 27, also plays but has no legal papers. Neither does brother Felipe Pereira, 25, one of the team's biggest fans. Hernan and Felipe refuse to set foot in Prince William now. So Walter voted with his teammates to drop out of the Woodbridge league.
"I don't want anything to happen to them," said Walter Pereira, who lives in Alexandria. "I have to support them. I am Latino, too."
Leagues in other jurisdictions reported no similar declines, with one exception: A handful of the 14 teams that played in the Springfield Soccer League last year are moving to the District or Maryland, league owner Jose Bonilla said.
"They are afraid of being near" Prince William, said Saul Cardenas, who is moving his team, Atletico Sure¿o, to a District league after playing in Springfield for five years.
Leaders of teams staying in Prince William said they have mostly legal players or are recruiting younger Latinos who are U.S. citizens, a move they said would probably weaken their teams. Others hold out hope that rosters will grow if immigrants see that police are not making mass arrests.
Last weekend in a sunny Manassas cafe, Victor Rivera, owner of Liga Universal de Manassas, held a sparsely attended meeting. Rivera has about 10 teams on board, down from 24 last year.
Chatting turned to questions: Should people carry passports? Would immigration agents raid the soccer fields? They joked about placing newspaper ads: "Players wanted. Unpaid. With papers."
Rivera vowed to keep the league going, even with 10 teams, to "reactivate the people."
"It's like a tornado hit here, and there is dirt everywhere," Rivera said. "We're trying to rebuild."