By Jose M. Romero / @RomeroJoseM
For FOX Deportes
EL PASO, Texas – Sergio Villasenor often worries for his relatives across the border in his home city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Members of his family have dealt with four assaults at their place of business in a city still wracked with drug cartel-related violence. It isn’t as bad as it was even a couple of years ago, when the city of more than a million people recorded 3,103 murders. But Juarez is still unsafe territory for the El Paso Patriots midfielder who works across the international border from where he lives.
“The truth is that it’s really hard to live in Ciudad Juarez, so I’m trying to find ways to bring them here (to Texas),” Villasenor said, “for a better state of being.”
One must pay the cartels for the right to operate a business in town, or perhaps be forced to close, or have their establishment burned down, Villasenor explained.
Despite all of that, Villasenor believes in Juarez and continues to live there. He crosses the border only for the opportunity to play the game he loves, soccer. And there was a time, not too long ago, when Juarez was the place to be despite all of the violence and crime.
The Indios were the toast of the town in mid-2008, after a memorable season that ended in victory over Leon and a move up to the Mexican First Division. They made a lot of people forget about the things for which Juarez had become notorious, achieving a galvanizing effect on a community in desperate need of something positive for which to be proud.
Tickets were the most expensive in the league, but that didn’t prevent sellouts. Indios games were must-see TV, even though the team struggled through that inaugural First Division campaign.
“Even when the team went those 27 games without winning, where they would either lose or tie, the stadium was sold out,” said Joe Rodriguez, who writes a soccer blog for the El Paso Times newspaper. “It was just quite a phenomenon.”
But all the good vibes and soccer success didn’t last, and by mid-2010 the Indios were relegated back down to the second division, or Liga de Ascenso. Then financial problems and debt set in, ownership was unable to pay players, and to make a long story short, by the end of the year in 2011, the Indios franchise folded.
It was quite an emotional blow to the entire Juarez-El Paso region. Most players had nowhere to go with the international transfer window closing fast after operations ceased. So a few, like Villasenor, defender Daniel Campos and midfielder Mario Arrieta, were lucky to land a spot on the Patriots’ roster.
Patriots soccer is a long way from the Mexican First Division, which features club giants like Club America and Chivas and Cruz Azul and Santos Laguna and Monterrey. But it is professional soccer, and it’s near home for the players.
“The economic problems affected the club little by little,” said Villasenor, who admitted to missing his former team. “To have studying, training, your agent, everything in your own city was great. When those things are in another place, it’s not the same.”
Campos was a starter for the Indios.
“It’s hard not having them now, because to play at that level is what one lives for,” Campos said. “It was something I got used to, a rhythm of living, and then everything totally changed. Then I had to find other options.
“Even though it’s not the same, it’s good to be here with the Patriots,” Campos added.
Campos, who is from Juarez and lives there, said there was pride throughout his hometown for the team. People forgot about the violence when the team played.
“The city has suffered since they’ve been gone.,” he said. “To be in the stadium (Estadio Olimpico Benito Juarez) for those two hours, to enjoy the game and not have to worry about being in the streets or being afraid to leave home… we will wait and see and hope we get another team soon.”
Rodriguez said there’s still a lingering feeling of hope in the area that the Indios will be reincarnated one day.
“In general terms, the idea of the Indios is still alive and well,” he said. “People still hope that the team will come back. That the owner, Francisco Ibarra, will have the good sense to at least sell the team name to somebody that will come on and give the franchise another try in Juarez.
“It was something very, very special,” Rodriguez added. “In the time that they were here, they did some very special things.”