On a recent Saturday morning, a crew of aging former professional soccer players from Latin America huddled around Salvador Lopez, who drilled them on the strategy of how their team, El Farolito, would win the 10:40 game in Golden Gate Park.
Seizing the championship in the Papy Soccer League is always the goal for Lopez, and for three of the last four years, the team named for his Mission taqueria has delivered. But three ties this season had got his rivals gossiping. The league's snarky newsletter had called his lineup "almost-dimmed stars," so Lopez wasn't in the mood for an upset.
As far as sheer talent goes, the midranked Alianza Lima team gathered on the other side of the field, wearing replicas of the real Lima pro team's shirts one player had brought from Peru, didn't present a huge threat. More than a couple of players boasted ample beer guts under their uniforms. Yet, like most in the amateur over-35 league, the squad had a couple of ex-pros. They included slight and speedy forward Armando Ostorga, on whom the team had relied to score ever since its star goalmaker was lured to Farolito at the end of last season (a betrayal Lima still hasn't forgiven him for). Lima's coach figured if the midfielders could get the ball away from Farolito's offense and up to Ostorga for a goal, the league Goliath could be beat.
That's the challenge on any weekend from March to September, when a pageant of 34 teams unfolds on city soccer fields, and Farolito is the unofficial belle.
Yes, that Farolito: the hole-in-the-wall taqueria at the junction of the Mission's two major streets that, like the lighthouse it's named after, beckons to paisanos and hipsters alike who await super burritos in the line snaking out the door. Cheap and tasty Mexican food transformed Lopez from a newly arrived immigrant working at a plant nursery 30 years ago into the owner of an expanding restaurant chain who took enough dollars back to Mexico to buy a minor league soccer team in 1994.
But on weekends in San Francisco, Lopez is the much-discussed king in soccer leagues that some players say are amateur in name only and that few outsiders know exist. After fielding a younger squad that took the U.S. Open Cup, the country's highest award, in the pre-Major League Soccer days of 1993, and an older team against which rivals say they have to play a perfect game merely to tie, Lopez' passion is to win and recruit a stable of players who will do just that.
Most 35-and-over papy squads — so-called because the players are old enough to be dads — have some ex-pros, but the Farolito team is almost exclusively so. The way they've ended up playing on a pocked field in San Francisco with few fans and an ice cream cart rattling down the sideline goes something like this: After players age out of the increasingly young game in Latin America, all but the top earners in the top divisions must consider their employment options. They migrate north to seek work in a country where their former nation's sporting passion is still largely seen as an after-school activity for suburbanites whose moms comprise a voting demographic.
Since most of the players skipped college for the stadium's bright lights, they trade their varying degrees of renown in other countries to toil here as kids' coaches and house painters, taqueria cashiers and waiters. But on nights and weekends, they flock to play in rec leagues around the bay, and when Lopez spots a player who might help add another trophy to his Mission Street bar, he invites him to join his squad.
The Farolito lineup includes Richardson Smith, a four-time member of the Honduran national team; Donizeti Santos, the name alone meant for a commentator's verbal acrobatics when the graceful defender from São Paolo played in the Brazilian and Salvadoran majors; and Victor Davila, a quick defensive specialist who played on Lopez' Mexican pro team, but who now kicks the ball in Golden Gate Park that ricochets inward off the goal post and past the diving goalie minutes before halftime.
It's 1-0 to Farolito.
At the break, the heaving Alianza Lima players trudge over to the sideline. Their coach, Carlos Torres, an Office Depot manager during the week, tries to pump them full of certainty that they can beat Farolito: "This team isn't going to win!" But he knows his players are up against a lot.
While some Farolito players claim the team's winning tradition alone attracts such talent, just about everyone in the league knows there's another magnet: "You know Farolito pays all their players, right?" Torres asks. Farolito's captain, Jorge Salazar, confirms the worst-kept secret in the papy league: Lopez wants to win at all costs, and the efficient machine named El Farolito doesn't run on burritos alone.
After the game — results in a bit — Salazar, a former Salvadoran national team member with jagged teeth and Tarzanlike hair that falls down onto his brickyard shoulders, changes into a polo shirt and plaid shorts, ready to speed in his sporty Range Rover to the game of the kids' team he coaches. (The pro years on the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks and in El Salvador were good to him, he says.) Before leaving, he grabs a foil-wrapped Farolito burrito out of the box, brought compliments of Lopez, and walks up to the coach sitting on the wooden bleachers. Teammates are already ripping into carne asada burritos and quesadillas chased by Coke, Lopez' teetotaling take on many other teams' postgame tradition of cerveza or the harder stuff, win or lose.
Lopez slips a small white square packet of cash — the coach's preferred form of delivery, the player says — into Salazar's fingers, which are curled around the burrito. Lopez is discreet, but Salazar less so; he tears open the packet and unfolds the bills tucked inside. The couple in view: crisp hundreds. Salazar says the wad is his pay for a month's worth of games in the supposedly amateur league.