Morelos, Mexico Transplant Starts Successful Twin Cities Soccer Group
A little bandito. That’s what Jorge Mentado felt like as 9-year-old kid during a fleeting moment of his life. It happened once during the days he spent growing up in Cuernavaca, a city in Morelos, Mexico. Mentado found himself sprinting away from a police officer.
He incurred the wild, sporadic whistling from the officer on duty after one of his group’s many soccer balls fell from the top of the tall building they lived in, and also played pick-up soccer on, screaming and cheering as if they were playing in the World Cup.
“We got to be so crazy that one time the policeman got the ball, and waited for the police car to come by to confiscate it,” Mentado said. “I started just running as fast as I could and took it away from the police and kept on running–like a bandito.”
The children played on a roof in the shape of a horseshoe. When the ball went over the walls –which it often did– it went into the heart of a bustling downtown.
By this point Mentado had soccer balls confiscated quite often; the police considered them to be dangerous missiles as they fell to the ground, smacking the concrete with a thud that was normally reserved for the walls of the roof acting as goals. Parents had stopped providing the children with balls–they just couldn’t stop losing them.
If it wasn’t the police confiscating the “missiles,” and putting Mentado’s sprinting skills to the test, it was other, older neighborhood kids running off with them.
“We kept losing them, and we got pretty creative,” Mentado said, recounting his childhood. “We’d create our own soccer balls with plastic bags because we lost a couple soccer balls we had, but we needed to keep playing. Our parents got tired of buying soccer balls. They said, ‘No, no more,’ and we got the same reply from some of my friend’s neighbors.”
But those days are over. It’s been decades since Mentado, now 40 and with a job selling IT equipment to Latin America, has had to play soccer with plastic bags, but moving from Mexico to the Midwest provided a new problem: finding people who share his passion for the world’s most celebrated game.
Football, or soccer as it’s known in the United States, has been a big part of Mentado’s life for as long as he can remember. The need to embrace this part of his culture is what led him to start the Twin Cities World of Football (soccer) group on Meetup.com, a website dedicated to providing people with a platform to form groups based on their interests. People sign up to become a member of the site, RSVP for events posted by organizers, and attend when they can.
Mentado started the group just to meet individuals in the Twin Cities interested in soccer.
“I got tired of being all by myself with my son,” Mentado, who has lived in the Twin Cities for 15 years, admitted. “I know there are people in the Twin Cities who love the game and enjoy playing, but they just don’t show it in a way that I’m used to. I grew up with people showing what they love, on the street, and everywhere. The conversation about soccer is just out there. And here you know it exists, but it’s something you cannot see, and I wanted that for him, my boy.”
With that goal in mind, Mentado spent the $72 fee for the initial six months, and took a gamble. The Edina resident was unsure if it would work–but it did. Only nine months have gone by since the group’s inception and it already has 279 members. In six months the group had 200 members.
“When I started, to be honest, I dreamed big,” Mentado said. “I had this huge idea of what it could be like because I am such a soccer fan that I visualize the World Cup happening, and how many people should like this game in the Twin Cities, and I said to myself, ‘This group has the potential to have 10,000 by Brazil’s 2014 World Cup.’
“Then I realized how difficult it was to get people together–even people who are like me. When I got 11 members I could not believe my eyes. I was super excited. It felt like I had just won something.
“I feel the 10,000 idea is definitely out there, but right now I am more content with having less with more quality than having more and not being able to know people’s names. I am very proud to say I know most of the people’s names–and I’m really bad with names.”
One of those names is Shmuel Dabush, a 26-year-old immigrant from Israel who is affectionately known as “Sammi the bull,” in part because of his solid frame, and also partly because of his marauding runs down the field.
Dabush has been a member for only a couple of months. He moved to Minneapolis north of the Mississippi river by Stone Arch Bridge. Hoping to get into dental school, Dabush moved to Minneapolis because his wife started vet school at the University of Minnesota.
The group–one that his wife found for him online–has proven to be a way for him to continue playing his favorite pastime, and also get to know the area.
“I like it a lot; I just moved here from Charleston, South Carolina,” Dabush said, explaining how he played on two different teams and pick-ups on Saturdays when down south.
Before South Carolina he was playing in Miami, but his love of soccer started from his days growing up in his home country.
“I think my first memory is a soccer ball,” Dabush said. “It’s a part of the culture. It’s not the best league in the world but it’s growing, it’s fun, and if you don’t play soccer you definitely watch it. I remember as a kid, I think we played soccer five days a week.”
Games took place on an outdoor basketball court, and then he remembers playing every Friday on a field big enough to host two sides of 11.
“Just pick-up all the time,” Dabush said.
But like many of the players attending the weekly pick-up matches across the Twin Cites, there’s another reason Twin Cities World of Football is liked: diversity.
“I love the diversity–that’s the key,” Dabush said. “I like the diversity and meeting people from different places and different regions in the U.S. or in the world. It’s fun, you hear the accents everywhere, it’s just a blast. And I like the fact that people come to to have fun, sweat, it really doesn’t matter what the score. There’s a bit of competitiveness, but it’s not over the top where people slide or get injured.”
At its simplest, the group looks to bind together those who have a common interest in the sport whether it be playing, watching, or simply arguing in a pub in support of why La Liga’s Real Madrid is better than Barcelona.
Anyone can attend a viewing party at a pub in downtown Minneapolis, or ride along for a trip to Kansas City or Chicago for U.S. National Team soccer games.
Some group members have even flirted with the idea of flying to Chicago to play a couple pick-up matches against the Meetup group there, go ice fishing and play soccer on the ice, or host a Halloween party where everyone dresses up like their favorite soccer heroes.
“The foundation of the group, and why it’s been successful, is to empower everyone to follow their soccer dreams,” Mentado said. “There’s a lot of benefits you can take out of this group. You meet a lot of new people, friends, connections for work, and find business opportunities. The fact that you have a large group opens doors.”
And much like Dabush said, that large group is indeed diverse. When attending a Twin Cites soccer match, it looks and sounds like a World Cup that allows both sexes to play on the field. Different languages flow on the pitch; people from different cultural backgrounds meld into one unit, and professors, newspaper editors, students, and social workers all come together based on one passion–soccer.
“I just love playing soccer, and it’s a lot easier to get a game going like this than it is just asking around,” Joel Enright, a 25-year-old social worker helping people with traumatic brain injury at non-profit Traumatic Brain Injury Metro Services, said.
David Spence, a 45-year-old soccer player who just finished winning a Twin Cities World of Football tournament with Enright, seconded what his younger teammate said.
“Because that’s the thing, to get a dozen people out for a six-a-side game you need 30 people because someone’s gone on vacation or working,” Spence said.
Enright has played soccer off and on since elementary school, and Spence was a late bloomer, only starting to play the game when he was 28 and attending college. Dave was going to St. Cloud State University, playing soccer with the paintball club and InterVarsity Christian fellowship when they would challenge the Campus Crusade.
“The paintball club played basketball, and we were watching soccer,” Spence reminisces. “I hadn’t played since elementary school, you know, right, just gym class or whatever.
“And we said, ‘Why don’t we challenge another group to a soccer game?’ So we ended up going out to a football field ans using the H bars, because we couldn’t find a soccer field in St. Cloud.
“The InterVarsity Christian fellowship is for like the nerdy Christian kids who don’t talk,” Spence recalled. “It was like pulling teeth to try and get the other kids to come out for soccer, but they came out, and after I was hooked.”
During that time period Spence watched a TV show providing highlights of English soccer every week. He took interest in it, and it was something different to watch in 1996, a time when soccer wasn’t televised too often.
Each player and fan’s path to liking the game is as unique as every player’s ability on the field–and that diversity is what Twin Cities World of Football likes to encourage. You can be a late bloomer, someone picking it up after years away, or a veteran of the game. Everyone is welcome.
The camaraderie has made it possible for members to now form competitive teams.
“There’s now opportunities for teams, which is nice,” Spence said. “It’s hard to form a team if you aren’t a part of a soccer crowd.”
Mentado said being a group of soccer enthusiasts helps everyone to become friends as they all have a common bond, and common ground on which to base outings and conversations on.
“You suddenly just become good acquaintances, not the best buddies, but soccer buddies, and there’s nothing you can do about that,” Mentado said.
The close-knit group and friendly atmosphere has also provided members a chance to meet up for Minnesota Stars FC matches, the Twin Cities’ professional soccer team. Mentado has even started to form a partnership with the pro team.
“The Stars have been a very strong backer for our organization because we have the opportunity to go watch them, and they help us with tickets. At the same time, we’re starting to help out with selling the tickets,” Mentado said.
But with Winter coming, the days of watching the Stars are coming to an end, and so is playing soccer outside.
Winter is coming
The season nestled between Fall and Spring can be brutal in Minnesota; it snows quite a bit, and temperatures can drop to below zero degrees–near impossible conditions to play soccer in.
“That’s the next challenge for our group, and it’s kind of scary,” Mentado said. “I don’t want to spend more money than I already have, because this has been coming out of my own pocket.”
Mentado shows up to most Meetup events, spends the money every six months for Meetup.com fees, and it’s taken a toll.
Winter presents a new challenge, as playing indoor requires finding a suitable place, and then coming up with money for rental fees.
“It would be nice to find a place that would take us and we can pay individually,” Mentado admits, explaining that it would be hard to hound everyone for money to an indoor facility that require one large payment, though it’s possible he could bring the group back to Matthews Recreational Center (the location of the first ever Meetup event for the group) for futsal.
Getting sponsors is another challenge. In order to do so the group members need to RSVP to events to show how popular World of Football is, but many people don’t, showing up week in and week out but never visiting the site to check in.
One of the major sponsorship wins for Mentado is the acquisition of Twin Cities of World Football t-shirts paid for by Verizon. They’ve become a way to show the Twin Cities the group exists, and a sort of badge of honor, or another completed milestone.
“It all comes back to having a group that is socially accepted, but allows me to feel like I’m a part of the group, a member that feels the same as everybody else,” Mentado said.
From here, just like in Winter, the road gets a little tougher to travel.
“I’m trying to turn this into a group, and I don’t know which way to go now,” Mentado said. “I could funnel, filter this group to take out the best of this group, and make our own Facebook and continue on, which could be, for the money aspect, the best thing for us.”
Going the Facebook route is risky, as Meetup has made the group possible.
“Without Meetup none of it possible–not even on Facebook,” Mentado said, explaining how he initially tried to set pick-up soccer dates on Facebook before joining Meetup.
But for now the group continues to grow and play soccer–at least until the ground becomes covered in snow, or the weather too cold to bear. The mission statement has changed three times to evolve along with the group’s ambitions and activities over the past months, and Mentado hopes it continues, despite the new challenges of the burgeoning group.
“I hope to continue to dream with soccer. It would be nice to some day have an opportunity when the Stars become bigger stars, they will bring some of the big-house names,” Mentado said, reminiscing about the time he saw the Los Angeles Galaxy Major League Soccer Club play against the Minnesota Thunder professional soccer team in 2007.
“I dream of a day where our group is involved, and we get to be very close to the field watching those games, and my kid is there, and other kids are following the same line of soccer as we are trying to build,” he continued.
Most of all, he hopes people never have to take his bandito approach to playing soccer.