Score!!!

Trophies at the El Farolito bar.

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.

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Many coaches grudgingly accept that they'll never have the means to attract the athletes Farolito can. Others laud Lopez for helping his players financially while sustaining an important sport for the Latino community. “It's a sport that impassions all Hispanics,” says Roberto Figueroa, whom most call “Macho” for the strong kick that lifted him from the banana farm he grew up on to the Honduran national team and the Spanish pros. “Hondurans, for example — we come from a country that's really downtrodden by politics, by war. And so for us, soccer helps us remember the greatest joy our country has had. We've always been known for the soccer players that have left to play internationally.”

A former Farolito player, Figueroa started his own second-division team in the papy league this year. “This gives me the possibility to feel what I felt, like today I have to go to sleep early because tomorrow I have to play early,” he says. “There's a big difference because I'm 50 now, but you still feel the same nerves.”

And coaches like Lopez help players to continue doing what they love. “I admire [Lopez] because he's one of the few people that invest in amateur soccer at the local level,” says Suamy Alvarez, a former Farolito player who now coaches the papy Honduras team. “If I had money, I'd do the same.”

While most say no one bets in the papy league — “No one would bet against Farolito,” one player explains — an assortment of microeconomies percolate on the polo fields, the league's temporary post while its nearly 30-year home at Crocker-Amazon Park is laid with synthetic turf. One Salvadoran woman hawks from Igloo coolers the pupusas and turkey tortas she woke at 3 a.m. to prepare. A photographer takes the day off from shooting weddings and quinceañeras to snap action shots and sell the photos he prints in his car for $5. An appreciative fan might slip a player a $20 for a skillful play.

And just about everybody knows that some of the past-their-prime athletes are paid to play — and not just for Farolito, but in similar leagues across the Bay Area and nationwide.

Lopez vigorously denies it, a strategic part of a don't-ask, don't-tell charade that has persisted for years. The papy league is a recreational league, not for profit, so paying players is against the rules.

But Salazar isn't worried: “The league doesn't care,” he says.

League president Nelson Pino is a jovial 62-year-old former Marine who wears a black military beret and carries a cellphone that rings with the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Ruling over the Saturday matches in the tent that serves as league headquarters, he blasts unruly behavior in the papy newsletter, be it a player leaving a game to openly take a leak beside the field or teams showing up in mismatched kit.

Yet for a guy who doesn't put up with bull, Pino sticks to the book when asked if anyone is getting paid: “Not that we know of,” he says. “That's against the statutes.”

Ric Olivas, president of California Soccer Association North, the FIFA-affiliated body that registers the players, is more frank. “A lot of them pay [players] under the table,” he says. And that's allowed? “Yeah, it is. How do we stop it? How do we even know?”

On the poorest of teams, the players themselves split the expenses and the nearly $2,000 annual league dues that pay for fields, refs, and insurance. Many squads cover a combination of expenses: gas, bridge tolls, postgame food and drinks, uniforms and cleats. Others pay just a couple of stars — some players report getting up to $100 per game on other teams — usually in confidence, so teammates don't get jealous. “They still have big egos,” Olivas says.

Coaches say the league looks the other way because good players raise the level of play. Indeed, the league treasurer himself, Tony Ramirez, says he paid some players on the now-defunct Victory team up to $100 each. League vice president Rafael Cañas diplomatically says that other teams “don't have the capacity to have professionals.”

But Salazar of Farolito doesn't mince words. Lopez “pays everyone,” he says. “Everyone. Everyone. Everyone. 50, 60, 100, I don't know how much more.” $100, $200? “Some maybe more, some maybe less,” he says, adding that he gets a bonus if his team wins the championship. As a fourth-generation professional player, Salazar has no qualms saying that he expects to be reimbursed for his on-field services: “No money, no play. … It's not for my ego, but for performance. If they don't [pay me], how am I supposed to perform?” He says he earns “a little less” at Farolito than he does at his day job coaching for a club team in Cupertino, but he won't divulge the exact amount: “For professional ethics, I can't say.”

Lopez' assistance doesn't end with the envelope. When Farolito takes teams to tournaments in Las Vegas or Los Angeles, travel expenses are covered. The team masseuse kneads the players' legs with baby oil before every game. When Donizeti Santos hurt his hand this season and the X-ray, clinic visit, and medicine added up to $250, Lopez paid it all.

But with the only prizes being a trophy at a ceremony and publicity for his taqueria, why all the generosity? Lopez says he pays expenses like food and uniforms because soccer is “something you like to do. Instead of going on vacation, or going dancing I don't know where, it's better to go see a game because that's what you like.”

Others say Lopez will do anything to get players who will help him win. In the past, that has meant routinely flying in one player from Las Vegas for two seasons. Carlos Castro Borja scored against Mexico in the 1994 World Cup qualifiers for El Salvador, a moment he jokes “was better than sex.”

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When Lopez saw Borja play a couple of years ago, he wanted the player. Borja was sent off mere minutes into his first game with Farolito after a scuffle on the field in a moment that has gone down in league lore. “I wanted to die,” Borja said over the phone from Vegas. Still, Lopez paid him: “He said, 'I have the say, you take it. This is what I offered you, and this is what I'm going to be paying you.' I was left with my mouth hanging open. For playing 20 minutes!”

Borja crashed for more than three months at the home of a teammate, easily living off his pay from one game a week. After Borja returned to Vegas, Lopez paid for him to fly in for every game that first season and for important ones in the second. (Lopez, ever discreet, says that he merely helped Borja with gas to drive to the city.)

Borja now talks about Lopez the way most of the coach's loyal players do, as soccer's patron saint of generosity: “How humble, that guy,” he says. “We should build him a monument on the field in San Francisco.”

For all the interest in Salvador Lopez, the joking that he's the George Steinbrenner of the papy league, and the speculation swirling around those white envelopes, the coach himself doesn't seek attention. Since leaving his post on the league's board of directors several years back, he now sends the jolly team manager most know as “Pecas,” or “Freckles,” for his face's abundance of them, on team errands and to the Tuesday night meetings.

Many teams make a social bonanza out of each Saturday. The members of team El Salvador come early to stake out their spot on the bleachers with their blue and white national flag, and connect a car battery to speakers that provide the cumbia and reggaetón soundtrack for the games. But Lopez arrives in his Toyota Tundra about an hour before the match, 15 minutes before he requires his players to show up. He delivers his no-nonsense orders, then observes quietly from the sidelines, clipboard tucked under his arm, as his team wins. After eating, coach and team usually dart away to prior commitments. Veni, vidi, vici: an efficient enterprise.

But with a free afternoon after the Alianza Lima match, Lopez' respected perch as a premier talent broker in the league was on full display. First up: Rene Hidalgo, a compact and lightning-fast forward from team El Salvador. He wanted to know if he could haggle his way onto Farolito midseason. Lopez says he won't get much playing time, and Hidalgo responds with self-flagellating enthusiasm: “It doesn't bother me to sit out at all. What I care about is that you win.” Lopez invites him to an impromptu practice on Wednesday night: “Talk to Pecas.”

Next up: Neddy Marquez, the forward whom Farolito invited on board this season after he was the first division's top scorer with Alianza Lima last year. Because of his construction job, Marquez hadn't been able to make it to all the Saturday games, and Lopez hardly played him in the ones he could get to, causing him to transfer to another papy squad, Cienciano, that week. Lopez cuts him no slack: “I told him you made 30 goals in the last tournament, but with us, well, you didn't play, but you didn't do it.”

At 58, Lopez has salt-and-pepper hair and a trim mustache, and stands a fit 5-foot-10 thanks to daily three-hour workouts and playing in an over-50 league on Sundays. Though he'll talk endlessly about strategy or Mexican soccer gossip, he handles personal questions like a star defender, dribbling past specifics to generalities that commit to nothing. He's polite without being overly friendly, and always seems to need to get back to work.

Work is what has made Lopez. His tale of coming to the U.S. reads like the classic immigrant script: Growing up the son of corn farmers, and with just three years of school, Lopez migrated north in 1975 from Mexico City. At the nursery he worked at in Half Moon Bay, he met two other Mexican immigrants who wanted to open a taqueria in San Francisco. After scouting out the Mission's existing eateries, the three started Taqueria San Jose on the corner of Mission and 24th streets. But after a couple of years, Lopez sold his share and opened his first restaurant kitty-cornered from the San Jose in the early 1980s, ignoring his former partners' plea that he not open a business within 10 blocks.

“He loved to work, but him, híjole! He wanted to become rich quick,” says David Valle, still the owner of Taqueria San Jose. The third partner left to open El Taco Loco on the third corner of the intersection. “They stole all my recipes,” Valle jokes.

In 1986, Lopez entered a team in the San Francisco Soccer League, which, in the days before Major League Soccer, was the top competition in the area, dominated by clubs that recruited expat pros and other immigrants. Each Sunday in Boxer Stadium in Balboa Park, clubs with names like Greek Americans, Sons of Italy, Concordia Sport Club, and San Francisco Glens were cheered on by their respective ethnic communities, who paid regular dues to support their teams. Former Greek Americans owner Jim Rally says he would often sponsor European professionals to immigrate to play and work at Greek-owned businesses; the club started paying players in the early '80s to keep up with the competition.

Lopez' team entered the league like a rocket, seizing the division championships each year to reach the majors in 1991, and, two years later, captured the U.S. Open Cup.

One year later, Lopez took a big step: He bought a minor-league Mexican soccer franchise for $10,000, he says, and created a team named for the cockfighting tradition of the state capital, the Gallos of Aguascalientes. Under his ownership, the team rose to the first division three years later, one step below the majors. Lopez made regular flights to Aguascalientes, where the team's fan base had grown from a handful of fans at the first games to nearly filling the several-thousand-seat municipal stadium. He even sent a few Farolito players there to try their hands in the pros.

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In 2000, the Gallos won the winter tournament, which poised the team to enter the Mexican majors. It would have been a prime moment to sell the team, but Lopez wanted “the whole enchilada,” says Ricardo Ramirez, a friend of Lopez' who plays on his over-50 team. But in the final game of the tournament to determine which team would ascend, the Gallos lost. With his franchise hemorrhaging money, Lopez says he sold it in 2001 for $800,000. He says he walked away without profit after paying what he owed for players' salaries and travel expenses for away games.

“He felt like a failure,” says Lopez' 29-year-old daughter, Guadalupe, who keeps the books at the Mission Street taqueria. For her father, buying a Mexican team “was like a little kid walking into Toys 'R' Us. He always had [dreamed] about it, but obviously it's a very expensive dream.”

While Lopez says he was “just one person more” in the Mexican soccer world, he had long since become king in the San Francisco leagues. True, Sundays at Boxer Stadium for the younger team are no longer what they were. Only a couple hundred fans will show. The creation of MLS in 1996 whisked away the star players, several top clubs have folded, and the multiplying leagues around the bay have diluted the talent pool. Nevertheless, it's still the top amateur talent in the Bay Area, and the young Farolito squad has taken the championships for six of the last seven years.

Since Lopez entered a team in the papy league in the early '90s, only one team has consistently challenged Farolito. Tony Ramirez is the teddy-bear-like owner of one-man San Bruno shop Victory Soccer, which serves as a pit stop for papy league patrons who stop by to watch televised games on Friday evenings. Ramirez says he mailed his top Victory players $70 to $100 when he could, in addition to all the soccer gear they wanted. Victory and Farolito traded championships, and a rivalry formed. “[Tony] and Salvador always had their polemics,” says Pecas, Farolito's manager.

Players describe the two coaches as polar opposites. Lopez is the shrewd analyzer; Ramirez is the laid-back supporter. For Lopez, discipline is first, and if someone doesn't play how he wants, “I'll put another in.” Ramirez gives his players more leash. Ramirez recounts with relish the time one of Farolito's players spit on him, and Ramirez got so angry, the ref threw him out. He still isn't speaking to Jorge Chavez, the coach of Farolito's younger team, for stealing away one player who'd committed to Victory before the season started. Ramirez likes to refer to Lopez' players and assistants as “ass kissers.”

“He still has a lot of guys around him … like kissing him. Moomoomoomoo,” Ramirez says. “When I had a team, I had to carry everything. If a ball goes out of bounds, I have to watch for the ball, otherwise it gets lost. Salvador doesn't have to do that. He's just standing there.”

But with the slow economy, Ramirez couldn't afford to keep paying players, or close his shop on Saturdays to head to the field. So he decided to fold his team after the 2006 season. For the championship that year, Farolito and Victory faced off one last time at Boxer Stadium. With the teams tied, as usual, at full time, the game went to a penalty shootout, each team nailing all five. Finally, in sudden-death penalty kicks, Farolito's Salazar missed. “He put his head down, and we all ran around the field,” Ramirez remembers. The following year, Victory's players fanned out to other teams — many to, yes, Farolito.

Other help for the Farolito empire comes direct from Mexico, with Lopez serving as a portal to the United States for past Gallos players. When 36-year-old Argentine forward Luciano Guiñazu hung up his cleats three years ago, his wife suggested they move to the States rather than return to the tough economy of Buenos Aires. Guiñazu called the only person he knew here: Lopez. Now Guiñazu plays papy soccer on Saturdays and works at Lopez' taquerias until 3 a.m. four nights a week — taking orders, distributing paychecks — in the first nonsoccer job of his life, alongside three other former Gallos. “You miss it sometimes, being on the field, competing for something,” he says. “But my moment passed. I took it well.”

Guiñazu even shaved off his signature long locks this year after they started thinning — a moment of reckoning with age if ever there was one. But he still works on the playing field, this time as a teacher. Finding that one minimum-wage job won't support a family in the Bay Area, he supplements his income by coaching at the Burlingame Soccer Club, where he awes the kids with his expert ball control and Argentine accent.

Lopez shakes off the notion that he likes to help immigrants who have come after him. More than anything, he is a businessman at heart — a stickler for hard work who says his taqueria's quality is only “70 or 80 percent” of where he wants it, and who will still man the grill for a new location when it first opens.

“The hustle, hustle comes in our blood,” Guadalupe says, adding that her family is now thoroughly acculturated. “We could buy ourselves a Lamborghini and live in Hillsborough if we want to. … There's no way we could survive in Mexico now.”

Still, Mexico is everywhere in the taqueria. A picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe stands vigil over the kitchen. Songs by Los Tigres del Norte and Vicente Fernández rotate on the jukebox. Advertised on the restaurant wall is another Mexican tradition: a soccer lottery, or quiniela. To play, you predict the outcomes of the weekend's Mexican pro league games and enter the raffle for $10. Supposedly, the one who guesses the most correct results wins the money; if there's a tie, the pot is split, and the number of winners is scribbled on a piece of cardboard placed over the next-door bar.

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At the risk of spoiling the fun, hosting or housing a sports lottery is illegal in California, with a penalty of up to a $5,000 fine and/or a year in jail in addition to anything from a letter of warning to a revocation of a liquor license. One former quiniela winner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said a taqueria employee delivered $3,500 in well-worn $5, $10, and $20 bills in rubber-banded stacks to his home last year.

Although many say Lopez is in charge of the lottery, he denies it: “We don't do that. … I had it, but not anymore.” He says “some people who come there” do it, but wouldn't name names. Tony Ramirez has been playing $40 to $100 every week, hoping to strike it big.

At halftime at the polo fields, and with his team down by one goal, Alianza Lima's coach Carlos Torres had not lost hope. Farolito had gotten off to a slow start this season. Some players blamed the uneven field, which diverts the ball at unpredictable angles and punishes a team used to the pancake-flat planes of a professional stadium. But towering sweeper Richardson Smith says it was partly ego: “We've been underestimating the rivals.”

Farolito keeps the pressure on Lima in the second half. Guiñazu directs a high pass to Farolito's top-scoring forward, Rafa Gutierrez, who heads it straight through the goalie's legs. Gutierrez executes his signature scoring celebration, dropping to his knee like a knight, making the sign of the cross and kissing his thumb before jogging over to give Guiñazu a hug and slap on the back.

It's 2-0 to Farolito, and Lima's frustration builds. When the line ref calls offsides against Lima — Farolito is the only team that always puts down the extra $50 for the league to hire two line judges — one rowdy fan yells, “Farolito is going to give him five burritos!”

Torres takes a risk in the last 15 minutes, moving former pro Jaime Perez out of the goalie box where he'd made umpteen saves to his true post as a forward, hoping he'll score. Torres switches Perez with a man nicknamed “Vaca” — cow. (“He's kind of big,” he explains.) As time runs out, Celia Cruz' “Life Is a Carnaval” pumps out of team El Salvador's speakers from the bleachers, and the Lima players get frantic. Farolito drives the ball down the field, Vaca dives or falls in anticipation of a shot, and, with an unmanned box, Salazar kicks in an easy goal. 3-0.

The game brings Farolito's record to five wins, three ties, and no losses; the team remains in first place. The victory adds fuel to a league truism. “People try to play well against us, but in the long run, we'll always win,” Salazar says.

Torres comforts his flock: “It's okay, it's okay, you played well. … Good first half; second half it went down a little bit. But with Farolito, it's not just any team.”

After the game, Lopez talks about Farolito's future. He claims he'd sell his taqueria chain if his kids didn't want to run it, though that's unlikely, given that both his son, Santiago, and Guadalupe say they want to keep it in the family and expand past the current locations. But Lopez drops his nonchalance when talking about the team. In a rare expression of pride toward his soccer empire, he says he'd consider turning over the coaching to someone else, but Farolito will stay on the field. “Forever, as long as I can see and walk,” he says. “We're always going to be there. This is like eating. You have to eat every day or work, the same.”

With that, Lopez destroys the gossip that someday he'll tire of pumping out cash to win in a league few outside it care about. A day that “a lot of people are going to cry,” his over-50 league teammate Ricardo Rodriguez says.

On the Alianza Lima sideline, forward Armando Ostorga complains about unfair refereeing. He claims a fist to the back from a Farolito defender sent him to the ground, but the ref didn't call a foul.

Not that Ostorga wouldn't consider deserting to Farolito if they'd invite him. He'd have to see about the price.

 

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