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What some Tampa Latinos missed most: soccer, food and camaraderie

They couldn't wait for their hangout Cinco Soccer to reopen this month. "It is like breathing again. We are back home."
Some 80 men turned out at Cinco Soccer one recent Thursday night, to play soccer but to share music, food and stories from their native Latin American countries, as well.
Some 80 men turned out at Cinco Soccer one recent Thursday night, to play soccer but to share music, food and stories from their native Latin American countries, as well. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]
Published Jun. 19, 2020|Updated Jun. 22, 2020
Related: Lea aquí en Español

TAMPA — Luis Alejandro Montes was waiting when the doors of the Cinco Soccer soccer academy reopened earlier this month.

It had been 10 weeks since the academy and its green fields near Hillsborough Avenue and 56th Street was closed by state order to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“It may sound exaggerated but it is like breathing again,” said Montes, 34. “We are back home.”

There are measures in place throughout the Cinco Soccer academy to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but there's not much to be done once the play is underway.
There are measures in place throughout the Cinco Soccer academy to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but there's not much to be done once the play is underway. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

Getting back to normal means different things to different people. For some Latino immigrants in Tampa, it could only happen once they get together again at Cinco Soccer, sometimes until 2 or 3 in the morning. They come to play fútbol, of course, but for so much more.

The visits are a reunion with friends, a chance to share the music and the food of the countries they left behind, to talk about family, the future, and now, COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Phase 2 of the state’s plan allowed places like Cinco Soccer to open again. But a recent rise in cases, positive tests and hospitalizations raises questions about how long that will last.

Some of the men who play lost their jobs because of the pandemic. Others never received the stimulus check they were promised by the federal government. Still others found a new way to make money and support their families.

Keith Rados spent most of his waking hours at his Cinco Soccer academy in Tampa so it hit hard when he had to shut down for the coronavirus. He instituted a number of health and safety measures before reopening.
Keith Rados spent most of his waking hours at his Cinco Soccer academy in Tampa so it hit hard when he had to shut down for the coronavirus. He instituted a number of health and safety measures before reopening. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

Many of the younger players see the owner of Cinco Soccer, Keith Rados, as a father figure. A 57-year-old father and husband with Croatian roots, Rados spent most of his waking hours at the academy before he had to close his doors in mid-March.

“It was hard for everyone,” he said, “because it forced us into a situation that we had never experienced before.”

Montes, an elementary school teacher born in Peru, said the separation from friends and his beloved soccer seemed to make his world shrink.

“It’s been a hurricane of changes,” he said.

Pablo Andres Leigh Valencia, 21, and Luis Alejandro Montes, 34, joined some 80 men one recent Thursday night at Cinco Soccer. Leigh worries about groups but trusts that everyone is taking measures to stay safe.
Pablo Andres Leigh Valencia, 21, and Luis Alejandro Montes, 34, joined some 80 men one recent Thursday night at Cinco Soccer. Leigh worries about groups but trusts that everyone is taking measures to stay safe. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

For Montes, home became his workplace, where he taught virtual computer lessons. His fitness regimen shifted to a daily morning run around his neighborhood. He used Facetime to communicate with friends. And for the first time in 10 years, he didn’t play soccer.

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So he was there when Cinco Soccer reopened. And he was there again one Thursday night, June 17, when the number of players had grown back up to about 80. Rojas, a 34-year-old husband and father from Venezuela, was one of them. Rojas has been coming since 2014 and said he could never put a price on how much the gatherings mean to him.

He pays $8 each time, and now there’s an app so he can do it contact-free. Money is harder to come by for Rojas with his carwash business off 60 percent, but he had some savings and he’s finding other work through his friends at Cinco Soccer.

“We share ideas and recommendations,” Rojas said. “At the end of the day, you don’t feel alone. There are people and friends who have been through the same thing."

Jairo Lemus, a 39-year-old Honduran, started working in construction once the pandemic hit, installing ceramic tiles five days a week and spending some of his time off visiting the soccer academy. He has made new friends among the political refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador and the Peruvians who fled an economic collapse 20 years ago.

“We all speak the same language,” Lemus said, “and that language is friendship. There is laughter, there are tears, there is human warmth.”

Gabriel Quinteros, 45, brought two traditions with him from Argentina: soccer and barbecuing with friends on the sidelines.
Gabriel Quinteros, 45, brought two traditions with him from Argentina: soccer and barbecuing with friends on the sidelines. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

Gabriel Quinteros, 45, left Argentina 19 years ago but keeps up the tradition of playing soccer and barbecuing on the sidelines. He comes on Thursdays.

“When we talk about soccer, we, the Argentinians, enjoy it better with a barbecue and a bottle of red wine,” Quinteros said.

The talk always turns to coronavirus for 21-year-old Pablo Andres Leigh Valencia, who came from Colombia and lives in Bradenton. Leigh, a student of administration at Daytona State College, cherishes the chance to learn from people with more experience than him but admits he worries about groups.

“There’s always a risk,” he said, “but in this environment, I think people take care of themselves.”

Tuesday is the big night at Cinco Soccer, when 26 teams play. On Wednesdays, women are invited for mixed play and there are 16 teams. Thursdays see 18, Saturday 24 and Sunday 16.

Few people wear masks. Once games are underway, it’s hard to miss the small droplets from the nose and mouth that spread COVID-19. Sometimes, players are six feet apart and more, but sometimes they’re not.

Still, owner Rados takes measures to prevent the virus from spreading. He has opened only three of his six soccer fields. He checks everyone’s temperature when they enter. There are dispensers of hand sanitizer everywhere.

No more than 10 people are allowed to gather in a group along the sidelines and some spectators stand well away from the action. Referees use electronic whistles. Toilets are cleaned every half hour.

In addition, warning signs are hung on the walls of the academy, among the images of Diego Armando Maradona, the Argentine soccer star, and the Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo.

“The secret is not to abuse the openness,” Rados said. “Each of us must do his part, just like a soccer team.”

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