Israel Baires covered his ears. He and his sons slumped into their seats. D.C. United had just scored against the Tampa Bay Mutiny. Other hometown soccer fans at RFK Stadium were tossing rainbow scraps of confetti into the sky, and all around, children with faces smeared in United's red and black chanted: "D.C.! D.C.! D.C. United!"
But Baires turned to his boys: "Don't cheer," he told 12-year-old Ali and 5-year-old Christian. "We're not here to support D.C. United. They are not for us anymore."
It has been two years since United traded away star Salvadoran player Raul Diaz Arce. But the area's Salvadorans, once intensely loyal to United, still have not forgiven the team. They come to games in protest now and will be at RFK today for the game against the Columbus Crew. Some boo D.C. players. Some argue with Bolivians, who follow two Bolivian players on United. At a few games, there have been outbursts of violence, with fights in parking lots and even a stabbing.
But the Salvadoran protests are less about anger than lost hope. Diaz Arce meant everything to many of the estimated 200,000 Salvadorans in the Washington area, many of whom came to this country with little and who believe they are looked down upon not only by Anglo society but also by other Hispanics. In Diaz Arce, they saw a chance to show how good they could be.
"You would see pictures of Diaz Arce in every kid's room, all kids, even Anglos," Baires said. "It was special that he was here. He made us proud."
In Latin America, soccer players are followed with a passion even more intense than the affection fans in the United States held for such sports figures as Michael Jordan, Jackie Robinson and Joe DiMaggio. Soccer ignites intense national feelings as well: The so-called 1969 Soccer War, a dispute over Salvadorans who had settled in Honduras, erupted after a game between the two countries.
Combine soccer fervor with the American tendency to turn sports players into national heroes, and the result is Baires covering his ears and cheering so hard for the other team that he makes himself hoarse.
When Major League Soccer started in 1996, officials predicted that members of ethnic groups would want to see players from their own backgrounds on the league's 12 teams. In fact, many teams picked international players they knew would fit with the immigrant populations of their cities.
"We are not surprised by what is happening over the trade of Diaz Arce," said Dan Courtemanche, vice president of communications at MLS.
Each MLS club is allowed to have only four international players at any time. The league's ultimate goal is to reduce soccer loyalties that divide people by their ethnic groups. Instead, fans should support the team where they live now, Courtemanche said.
Traded Allegiances D.C. United traded Diaz Arce to the New England Revolution, which then passed him along to the San Jose Clash, which in turn sent him to Tampa Bay. The Salvadorans make their pilgrimages to RFK whenever Diaz Arce or another Salvadoran is playing against United or even when his team is here without him.
At one September game against the Dallas Burn, which has a Salvadoran player, 16 Salvadoran men, carrying a homemade Salvadoran flag, formed a human chain and marched through the stadium during halftime. "I hate United with my heart," Mosies Garcia said. "They discriminate against us."
At the Tampa Bay game, Baires pointed out that the Salvadorans are the largest Hispanic group in the Washington area. "We deserve a player," he said, as others around him nodded and, speaking in Spanish, agreed.
Baires and others grimaced as a Bolivian fan, Edwin Salvatore Gonzales, marched by banging an enormous drum and urging the crowd to cheer for United.
Gonzales, 50, attends every game and wears a curly black wig fashioned after Bolivian Marco Etcheverry's long hairstyle. Some Salvadorans pull on Gonzales's clothes and make faces at him. Sometimes, they dip french fries in ketchup and hurl them at his back.
"This is terrible," Gonzales said of being caught between United and the Salvadorans. "It has to end."
Many Salvadorans want the Bolivians to support their protests. Ultimately, they are mad at the Bolivians because they have what the Salvadorans want: players of their own.
The strong emotions of the Salvadorans reflect some of the realities of their history in this country. Since many in the first wave of Salvadorans to arrive in the United States came out of fear during a civil war, they had not prepared for the move by studying English or saving money, said Maria Cecilia Zea, an associate professor of psychology at George Washington University. They were from rural areas and had to adjust quickly to urban life.
And while growing numbers of other Latino immigrants in the area are moving into the American middle class, many Salvadorans are among those Latinos who remain in the working class, "which creates some tension with other Latinos," Cecilia Zea said. "Some work in cleaning jobs or at hotels or as busboys. You see a few of the children already making it to college, but not in enough numbers to say there is a transformation."
Salvadorans also are painfully aware of the damage to their image that occurred in 1991 when riots broke out in Mount Pleasant after a police officer shot a Salvadoran man who was being arrested for disorderly conduct.
Sports figures often have served as solace and inspiration to Americans. When Jackie Robinson became the first African American to enter baseball's major leagues, many blacks felt they were closer to being a part of mainstream America. Across the country, blacks rooted for the Dodgers--the Brooklyn team became their team. For Jewish Americans it was Hank Greenberg. For women: Billie Jean King, Chamique Holdsclaw and others. For Cuban Americans: Livan Hernandez, most valuable player of the 1997 World Series, and others who have fled Cuba.
"There is a need for heroes and a need to be recognized in some way in immigrant groups or racial or ethnic minority groups who are trying to legitimize themselves," said Bernard Mergen, a professor of American studies at George Washington University. "It's a belief in chance and luck: that if this person can make a million bucks, maybe I can, too."
So imagine if, without warning, Robinson and Holdsclaw were taken away in their prime. No more pride. No more T-shirts or caps with the hero's name. No more American icon who looks like you.
Playing to Win The Diaz Arce trade was not the only time Major League Soccer has seen this kind of disappointment.
In 1997, Mexican fans in Los Angeles were angered when Jorge Campos, who played for the Los Angeles Galaxy, was traded to the Chicago Fire. In the same city the next year, Guatemalan fans were upset when soccer player Martin Machon left to play in Guatemala.
United President and General Manager Kevin Payne said he understands the way the Salvadoran community feels. But he also is not going to hire a player from El Salvador just to placate protesters.
"For people who have come to this country from almost any other country in the world, soccer does engender passions," Payne said. "But we have said from the beginning we are trying to get the best players we can. If there is an opportunity to add a player from El Salvador, then we will. But we will not set out to find one."
After Diaz Arce was traded, Payne said he met with some leaders in the Salvadoran community. United traded Diaz Arce because he had a high salary and the team needed to meet a $1.6 million salary cap.
Salvadorans say another star should have been traded instead. Attendance at games remained stable the year Diaz Arce was traded, Payne said; the team lost Salvadorans but gained other suburban fans, he believes. (This season, attendance is up 14 percent, which probably reflects soccer's growing popularity nationwide.)
The team has tried to welcome back Salvadorans by hosting soccer programs for their children, Payne said. Members of the team recently attended an Arlington Salvadoran festival, and the team played in a charity match last year and sent some of the money to El Salvador.
Fans Against Fans It is hours before a United game, and members of the team's most serious fan club, the Screaming Eagles, are gobbling burgers and guzzling beer and soda in a parking lot outside the stadium. The club started before the team did. Many say they respect the Salvadorans' emotions but believe the protests are hurting the team's reputation. Others say the Salvadoran fans are annoying and even dangerous. In August, a 27-year-old Salvadoran spectator was stabbed several times during the second half of D.C. United's victory over Tampa Bay. (No one has been arrested in the crime, but police said the argument that led to the stabbing was not related to anger over the Diaz Arce trade.)
"As a soccer fan, it really bothers me that someone would come to our house and boo our team," says Matt Mathai, who is head of the Screaming Eagles and is himself an immigrant from India. "I understand they are upset. But here's the key phrase: Get over it."
Getting over it may not be so easy.
At a game last month against the New York-New Jersey MetroStars, a group of Iranians from Fairfax ran through the stadium wearing their country's colors. They were there to cheer for the MetroStars' Iranian player, Mohammed Khampour.
"This is good PR for my country," Kami Moradi said. "We root for our players."
Nearby, some Salvadorans looked on as the Iranians cheered. They understood exactly.
CAPTION: Tim Mehan, left, and Edwin Salvatore Gonzales beat the drums for D.C. United. Gonzales says dejected Salvadoran American fans mistreat him.
CAPTION: Members of D.C. United's biggest fan club, the Screaming Eagles, celebrate a goal. The group's leader says Salvadoran American fans shouldn't boo the team.
CAPTION: Gonzales drums up enthusiasm for D.C. United and its two Bolivian players.