Fishermen from two small mangrove islands took fourth place in the World Cup for beach soccer. The Azul Playera hails from La Pirraya and Rancho Vieja, where they started training in professional beach soccer seven years ago. Sunday, after a close game against Portugal, they ended their incredible tour in Ravenna, Italy.
It began in 2004, when Israel Cruz began organizing a soccer league with poor fishing families in San Dionisio, Usulután. While the mud and thorns of the mangrove forest made it hard to practice in the community, he quickly realized the kids played very well in the sand at the beach. So Mr. Cruz organized the community and the players to haul sand up from the bay to cover the field and started holding tournaments.
He soon met some of the team’s stars; Roberto Membreño and Wilber Zavala in Rancho Viejo, and Augustín ‘Tín’ Ruiz, Tomás Hernandez, and Medardo Lobo in La Pirraya. Israel Cruz remembers the first tournaments that the team travelled to. In one incident, ‘Tín’ got carsickness on the way to the nearby beaches of La Libertad. The anxiety of that experience led him to cut up his passport so that he wouldn’t have to travel to the 2007 elimination rounds in Acapulco, Mexico.
Today their passports are filled with stamps from Spain, Dubai, and Italy. After defeating Oman and Argentina, they classified for the final round with their victory over Italy. Only losses against Russia and then Portugal left them in fourth place – a historic achievement for Salvadoran soccer.
Now the team returns to La Pirraya and Rancho Vieja, where the majority of families survive off of fishing, digging clams from banks of mud in the bay, or transporting neighbors to and from the mainland. Sigfrido Reyes, the President of the Legislative Assembly, has already fielded questions about what, if any, economic aid will be given to these new ‘National Heroes.’
According to an article in El Mundo, the National Sports Institute promised the communities new boats and motors. But a month has gone by and the boats and motors have not materialized. Today, ARENA and FMLN have asked the Legislative Assembly to guarantee these incentives.