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Robert Andrew Powell Discusses Life, Death, and Futbol in Ciudad Juarez (Part 2)

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American Marco Vidal becomes a prominent character in "This Love is Not for Cowards."
American Marco Vidal becomes a prominent character in "This Love is Not for Cowards."

Our interview with Robert Andrew Powell continues (see Part 1 if you missed it), as we discuss living in Juarez, the Indios futbol team, and his upcoming book, This Love Is Not for Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juarez.

So you’re now all the way in. How much time did you spend with the Indios team that final season, the Bicentenario 2010?

Powell: I was there the whole time. I went to practice every day. I didn’t go on every road trip, because I didn’t have the money. Though that turned out to be not bad either because I would watch away games on television in bars. But I went to Guadalajara, and San Luis, and Cancun. Cancun is where they got eliminated as a team. In Guadalajara they played Atlas at Estadio Jalisco and lost 7-1, and it was just a bloodbath. They would keep being hopeful, but there was just no disguising at that point that the season was over. Just as a sportswriter it was unbelievable the access I had. I’m in the locker room before games and they’re stretching, praying, getting pumped up and I’m just in the corner taking notes quietly. Journalistically it was a rush, and I had a great time. It was the best reporting experience of my life.

During that last year we started hearing more and more about violence touching the players. Some of the South American players moved their families back home, there were reports of extortion, I think Marco Vidal was carjacked. Could you see the effect of all this on the team’s play on the field?

The opening game was in Monterrey against the Rayados, and probably the most famous guy in Juarez while I was there was [Julio Daniel] "Maleno" Frias. He was Marco’s best friend, and is a Juarence from a tough neighborhood who was the star striker on the team. A little bit before the game, one of his brothers had been shot in the knee as a warning, probably to stop dealing drugs. Then on the night right before the opening game the brother was murdered. The coaches found out about it but did not tell "Maleno" until after the game because they didn’t want it to affect his play. Now we have a murder directly touching the team, and how they have to cope with it is something no other team in the world has to deal with. Their star player’s brother was murdered and they have to go, ‘How do we deal with this?’ They told him after the game and he was extremely upset. Yet a couple weeks after that you’d ask him about it and he’d say ‘you just have to keep moving forward,’ which is just surreal.

You spent a lot of time with Marco Vidal.

I focused on him because he’s an American, and I’ve learned over my career that you have to focus on at least one person to carry the story. Marco becomes the main thread tying everything together. Both him and me. I said there would only be three characters and I wouldn’t be in it, but there’s 30 characters and I’m in it big time. But if there’s one person the book’s about, it’s about Marco and his journey. He ends up getting married while we’re there and I went to the wedding. Right after the season he got traded to Pachuca. If there was anything triumphant it was that his career went up, at least during that season. He was excited to be traded to Pachuca.

From what I could tell it seemed like the team always had tremendous fan support. People brought their families to the games and the stadium appeared to be a very safe venue.

It was a positive, safe place where nothing bad ever happened. I’m in Miami now and we’re building this incredibly expensive baseball stadium and we’re paying for it all. Every city in America has one of those bad deals, and I get down on the value of a sports team. These billion dollar stadiums are supposedly good for the community. Well, it was inarguable that the Indios were good for Juarez. It was the best case for what a sports team can do for an entire community. It gave people in Juarez something to focus on that was positive. As Francisco Ibarra told me, it was the only time you would hear the word Juarez on the news without the antecedent ‘bloody’ or ‘murderous.’ It was about soccer – an everyday thing – just like in every other city. It really was positive for everybody, and it was moving how positive it was.

What was the fan reaction as relegation became more and more of a certainty?

Just recalibrating their hope. Getting frustrated, and then like the team by the next game they were back being positive again. When they were relegated, celebrating that they had the Primera for two years and optimistic that they would get back. My last scene in the book I’m in the one box in the stadium with Francisco Ibarra. It’s their first game back down in the minors and he said, ‘We’re going to get back. We’re going to be back in one season and it’s going to be inspiring.’ He was totally wrong, but that’s what he was thinking and that’s what everybody was thinking. And now they can’t. It's really poignant to me, I don’t know what people in Juarez can focus on right now.

So what actually ended up happening this past December? The club had its certificate of affiliation revoked by the Mexican Futbol Federation, and I know they were battling a lot of economic issues.

Ibarra officially sold the team – at least he officially said he sold the team. Some people think it was a face-saving front, I do not know. He sold the team to nameless entrepreneurs and they never were identified. They mismanaged terribly, right away.

When was this?

He sold the team the summer of 2011. The new ownership right away had a miserable, horrible year. I went to a game and there was just nobody there, which was sad. They were losing every week and then they folded. It’s not really a surprise. I say the dream deflated like a soccer ball shot by a bullet, because I couldn’t avoid it. Some metaphors you have to use.

With the right ownership situation, is there any way a team could succeed in Juarez at this point?

The owner of Chivas is talking about setting up a minor league team because his wife is Juarence. Nobody wants to be owned by Chivas, because they would never get back to the Primera, but that’s better than nothing at this point. It’s clear in the book that Francisco Ibarra just mismanaged everything. He was not a good manager and he made bad business decisions the whole time he owned the team. It’s quite possible that a better businessman could make it work, at a minimum at least in the minors. But I don’t know if anyone would want to make an investment in Juarez at this point.

I know you just recently returned from a trip to Juarez. Do you still find reasons to have hope for the city's future?

I love the city. I love the people there. I completely fell in love with it, as ugly as it is, maybe the ugliest city in North America. Everyone said it’s calmer now, and it is calmer. There’s only three or four murders a day – which is outrageous, but it's not ten which is what it was when I was there. The mayor talks about how nightlife is booming and restaurants are crowded, but that’s just not true. That’s the optimistic talk of a salesman trying to sell an image of 'we’re back.' They’re not. But it is better there now. The big concern is, as a friend of mine said, what about those 10,000 unsolved murders over the last three years? They just want to hit the reset button and go forward optimistically, but we have 10,000 unsolved murders. Psychically there’s a toll for that. You can’t have a society where murder is legal and unpunished, and they do. It continues to be basically legal to kill in Juarez. That’s the absolute bedrock of a stable society -- you can't kill. That’s law one. Tax rates and public schools come after that. They don’t have the core basic government services under control. It’s really discouraging, and yet I love the city. I’m going to go back in a month. I seriously explored living there, but if you’re a sane person and you have options you can’t stay there -- not yet. I’m hopeful that they can improve it. I’m hopeful in part because I have so many people that I care about there now, and I want the best for them. I wouldn’t give up on Juarez because the people there are generally wonderful. It's just discouraging, and the fact that the team isn’t there is a really bad and blatant sign.

Robert Andrew Powell's book, This Love Is Not for Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juarez, will be released on February 28, 2012.