In 1994, Romildo Sanches, a native of Brazil, helped start the Valrico Soccer Club from scratch and says he remembers paying $300 out of his pocket for one of the first light poles at Keith Waller Park.
In 1999, he started the Players Club of Tampa Club and eventually spearheaded an $85,000 makeover at Heather Lakes Park to help foster soccer and curb gang activity.
Now Sanches serves as president of the fledgling FishHawk Soccer Club, but this time he has a $9.5-million sports complex at his disposal. "I'm walking in to a place where I don't have to break a sweat," Sanches said.
Over breakfast at La Septima, I talked to Sanches about the joys and pains of coaching soccer and his hopes for the new FishHawk club. Pull up a chair and join us.
ERNEST: You came to Rhode Island from Brazil to play semipro soccer. How did you get involved in coaching?
ROMILDO: In 1994, I moved here to Valrico. I used to go jogging every morning at Brandon High School. One morning, there was an ROTC activity at the stadium. So instead of staying there, I went to J. C. Handley Park. When I got there, there were a couple of parents trying to teach their kids how to play soccer. So I came over, introduced myself and started knocking the ball around with their kids and the parents thought I was something else. That same day, one of the parents, Peter Harvell, called and said he was looking for someone to train his son because he was trying out for Bloomingdale High. My phone hasn't stopped ringing ever since.
With handling kids, dealing with parents, the ups and downs of winning, coaching can be difficult. What keeps you going?
Youth soccer generates a lot of money, I just don't see it (laughs). Even though it generates a lot of money, I just focus on soccer. I do it because I really, really love it. I'm one of the lucky ones. I do what I really love. I look forward to going to work.
What have you learned about dealing with parents since you first started?
I have developed a thick skin (laughs). Before, I used to go home and cry. My wife? As soon as I walked into the house, she would leave. Now, I don't let things bother me anymore. Parents are fun creatures: You can't live with them, you can't live without them. The parents are the ones who pay the bills and keep the club going. But as a club organizer, as a director or coach, you have to put yourself, a little bit, in a different place than the parents. You have to understand that the parents are there temporarily. If you let a parent bother you, you will waste a lot of energy here instead of focusing on the kids. I listen to parents, I hear them but I don't do what they want me to do if it doesn't make any sense.
How rewarding is it to help a player develop and mature?
The good thing about soccer is that the greatest soccer players in the world — Pele, Diego Maradona — were not very big. You don't have to be big in order to play the game. The only thing it requires, like any other sport, is athleticism. I had a kid years ago, Josh Garbee, who was a good soccer player but he was small. His high school coaches, at the time, were looking for bigger stronger kids but no one could see his ability with the ball. When he came to me as a Youth 15, I spotted the talent right away and I had him set the pace of the game as a midfielder. He went to Florida Atlantic University and every single time he comes home, he brings me something.
You said expectations are high at FishHawk. Tell me about that.
They want to make sure it's well-organized. I've been attending meetings and getting to know them a little better and they are heavily involved with their kids' activities when it carries the FishHawk name. There's high interest in soccer. I think it's going to be one of the best clubs around when it's all said and done. Not only that, but it's a huge opportunity, especially for me. I'm not taking the pay for granted because I came from a poor little country. To have the opportunity to work with American kids and teach and pass on what I've learned is a huge opportunity.
DESSERT: A postscript from Ernest
To help prepare coaches and officials, Sanches is having each group divide up and play against each other. He's even having players yell at officials during these practice games to prepare them for the real action.
In addition to running FishHawk and Players Club, Sanches also creates opportunities for players to train in his native Brazil.
Last year, he took a team there and this year he's arranged for three players to live there this summer so they can learn more about professional soccer.
Sanches, 47, is in great shape and looks 10 years younger. It helps because he's a hands-on coach: "I lead by doing it, not by telling it. When I train, I'm the first one in line."
Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa & State section. He can be reached at [email protected] or 226-3406.