NATO, Cubs stressful? Try soccer in Mexican murder capital
Those NATO clashes between protesters and cops, and a Cubs losing streak, create stress for some of us. But it's nothing like the stressful time Mundelein native Robert Andrew Powell spent covering the worst pro soccer team in Mexico in the most murderous city in the world.
Powell, a 43-year-old sports writer and author, got a taste of Mexican culture, bad soccer and even a little violence during his years playing defense on the varsity soccer team at Mundelein High School soccer, where he graduated in 1986.
"We were not very good," remembers Powell, who spoke Spanish to communicate with his high school teammates who emigrated from Mexico. While he recalls a personal highlight when he scored two goals in a game, Powell's most memorable moment might have been the time he charged the opposing goalie after a perceived injustice.
"I got knocked out by a goalie," Powel remembers. "One punch in the head, and I was knocked cold."
Powell, the son of Thomas and Janice and sibling to David, Jennifer and Gretchen, developed his political and social justice mediation skills at Ripon College, where he played soccer for the college team.
"We were horrible, too," Powell says, recalling how the team's goalie was good enough to play after college. "He credited the fact that we were so bad with helping him develop his skills."
While working on his master's degree in social work at the University of Chicago, Powell realized social work was a bad fit for him. He quit and was working as a landscaper in Milwaukee when he went to the library and was inspired by reading "Friday Night Lights," H.G. Bissinger's book about high school football in Texas. Powell got his master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and started his own sportswriting career. His story about youth football in Miami earned him a place in the "Best American Sports Writing" anthology and later led to his book "We Own This Game."
For his new book, "This Love Is Not For Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juárez," (published by Bloomsbury) Powell moved to the violent border town of Juárez in December of 2009 and covered the city and its hapless soccer team, the Los Indios de Ciudad Juárez, until September 2010. News coverage of the city's drug culture and daily murder numbers without even a pretense that police might make an arrest made it seem "like the craziest city in the world," remembers Powell, who figured that made it the place to be for a writer who was divorced, looking for a project and "a little desperate."
"A lot had to go wrong in my life for me to end up in Juarez," he says with a laugh.
Strangers and the team welcomed him. So did the daily toll of murder victims.
"I had never seen a dead body before," Powell says, recalling his first, "two fresh kills baking on the paved drive-through lane of a convenience store," greeting him in Juárez. He would see lots of scenes with dead bodies.
"When I first saw it, I was struck by how blasé people were," Powell says. "And when I left Juárez, I was blasé, too. I was jogging and I had to leap over a puddle of blood, and I thought, 'Oh, somebody must have gotten killed here.'"
He used to joke that "the worst thing about Juárez is the weather, and the second-worst thing is that everybody is killing each other."
But the Indios soccer team offered a respite from the murders and warring drug cartels, Powell says. Rabid fans called themselves the El Kartel until that joke wore thin and they opted simply to be know as the EK.
"They were easy to root for," Powell says of the team, which included American-born midfielder Marco Vidal. "They were bad and they tried really hard. The players and coaches, they were just citizens at work."
The team lost 27 straight games and was the worst team in Mexico's Primera División pro league, but the players and the fans always had hope that they'd win the next game and life would be better, says Powell, adding, "they became a pretty good metaphor for the city."
The city has grown less violent. But the team had financial woes and folded up shop after its last game in November, leaving "a hole in the city," says Powell, who visited in April.
"I tend to like stories of loss because most of us lose more often," says Powell, who admits that a miraculous season with a win in the championship game might have been better for book sales and movie deals. "In the end, I find it really beautiful that they lost."
There is something uplifting about finding optimism in a city where "murder is effectively legal," Powell notes. "It's a lesson about how to live. I loved living in Juárez."