“Is there anything more beautiful than to celebrate a goal?” asks PhillyMex founder Emilio Alcaide on the league’s Facebook page.
Alcaide did not play soccer much in Mexico but upon arriving in South Philadelphia, he found comfort and camaraderie in pickup soccer games with other Mexican immigrants in neighborhood parks. Word of the matches quickly spread and the group found themselves overwhelmed with players, enough to fill eight teams.
The league officially began in 1994 when Alcaide reserved weekly field space on Sundays at the Vare Avenue Recreation Center. Summer turned to fall, everyone wanted to keep playing and the PhillyMex Indoor Soccer League was born.
Ten years have passed and the league is still going strong. Alcaide is the director. There are 16 teams with more than two hundred players on the roster. The indoor matches are serious events in comparison to the family friendly picnic atmosphere that accompanies summer games in the park. But even on dreary winter days, players arrive early, determined to win.
“Soccer is the best game in the world,” said Alejandro Medina, 16.
He and two of his friends joined the league on the advice of their parents. The teens strategize and win using the Barcelona Method – they move as a triangle down the field passing among one another until one gets a shot at the goal.
“For me, soccer is the best sport,” said Alex Jimenez. “When I was younger, I played soccer in the streets in Mexico. Coming here on Sundays reminds me of home.”
During the week, Jimenez is a cook at South Side Pizza but on Sundays, he and his wife run their own business making fresh tortas and arroz con leche at the PhillyMex matches.
“My favorite team is Cruz Azurre,” said Jimenez. “That is my favorite team in Mexico, and it is now my favorite team in the league.”
For Alcaide, game days are a family affair. His wife and daughter help set up and organize the matches and his son plays in the league.
“My son mostly likes American football,” said Alcaide. “But last year he became really good at indoor soccer. Everyone was talking about his skills.”
Matches are a venue for socializing, as well as a place for players to release some of their stress. Things can get pretty heated. A recent match ended in a brawl. Players kicked and punched each other, with five or more people participating in the fight. But even before the blood had dried on the Vare Recreation Center court, players committed to returning for the next match. It was, after all, the championship game between Atlante and Verduleros. It takes more than a few cuts and bruises to stop what has become a weekly reminder of home for many in the South Philadelphia’s Latino communities.
“There are good people and bad people,” said licensed referee George Sanon, who acknowledged that it is not uncommon for a game to end in a fight. “They come here to have fun, but every now and then, they just lose their mind and they start fighting out of nothing.”
As for why he chooses to spend his Sundays in a Grays Ferry recreation center, Sanon said, “Soccer is my life, it is in my blood. Without soccer, I don’t feel like I am living. I am too old to play now. That is why I volunteer to referee.”
The day of the big game, the number of fans tripled and the players spent more time than usual stretching and running in place before the game. Once the game started, cheers from the crowd could be heard outside the gym on the quiet streets of Grays Ferry. Inside the venue, the game was intense. Much like a professional soccer match, players questioned calls, exaggerated fouls and scored dramatic goals.
At the end of the day, team Atlante was victorious.
Players from both teams shook hands, knowing they will meet again on any given Sunday.
– Text, video and images by Jad Sleiman and Jessica Griffin