By JB Clark
PONTOTOC – More than 100 members of the Northeast Mississippi Spanish-speaking community, as well as a handful of casual soccer fans, gathered in Pontotoc as the two best teams in Tupelo’s Spanish-speaking soccer league faced off for its championship game.
The Tupelo Kickers Soccer League is a 12-team league consisting of about 250 members, most of whom are natives of Central and South America.
Juan Hernandez, a Nettleton resident who took over the league’s management duties two seasons ago, said he maintains the league because it serves as a positive outlet for the Spanish-speaking community in Tupelo and the surrounding areas.
Saturday evening’s match featured the Tienda Gonzales against Los Valedores.
Ultimately, Tienda Gonzales won three goals to one.
As the start time for the game came and went with one of the three referees running late, the large crowd grew anxious. He arrived a few minutes late to a rowdy crowd shouting in Spanish and English for him to hurry and start the game.
Once the game was underway, cheers went up, advice was shouted from sideline coaches (and spectators acting as coaches) and wind instruments were sounded.
A group of teens cheering along Los Valedores blew their vuvuzelas and trombones each time an opposing player came near their sideline.
Hernandez said the league is a popular pastime for north Mississippi’s Hispanic community.
“Hispanic people love soccer,” said the Juarez, Mexico, native. “Some of them go to school and the rest work. They have to have a hobby at the end of the day and when these games start, it’s like watching professional soccer. It’s a good hobby, better than drugs or alcohol.”
Junior Garcia, 23, of Tupelo, said the league offers him a good way to stay active and fit while associating with other members of the Hispanic community.
Garcia, the league’s leading scorer, was born in El Paso but his family is from Mexico and moved to Tupelo when he was young. He played soccer at Tupelo High School before going to Mexico to try his hand at professional ball.
Now he’s back in Tupelo but he’s still playing soccer, “You can take the boy out of the county but you can’t take the country out of the boy,” he said.
As a reward for being the leading scorer, Garcia was given a new set of soccer cleats and a trophy.
The league plays two seasons each year in Tupelo, with the end of the spring season played in Pontotoc while Tupelo’s fields are maintained.
Each season teams play 11 regular-season games and up to five playoff games.