By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Through sheer hard work, Gutierrez kept Carlos and his two older sisters, later joined by a younger sister, from a similar fate. For two years the children lived with their grandmother while she worked in Chicago, and later she found a job at the Colgate-Palmolive factory in Guatemala as a machine operator, making soap and toothpaste, the same job she continues in today. "I've been with the company for 18 years," she says proudly. "It's a very prestigious company here in Guatemala." After her shift at the factory, she would sell food and clothing on the streets, putting in 18 hours or more every day but Sunday, when she would come home at 3 in the afternoon. When Carlos' oldest sister got pregnant at age 14, the household grew to six, and Gutierrez was forced to stretch the family budget even more.
All her efforts were directed toward allowing her children the chance to study and go to college--and certainly not so her only son could waste his time playing soccer. While his older sisters studied, Ruiz watched the two younger girls all morning and then took his turn going to school in the afternoon. "I'm a pretty strict mom," she says. "I'm like a tigress defending my cubs. Because I didn't have a man around I had to take over the role." Ruiz still winces when he remembers the iron discipline in his house. "I always listened to my mom, because if I didn't--whack!"
Ruiz snuck in pick-up games at school and in the street, but it was Don Pedro, an upstairs neighbor, who finally gave him a spot on a real team when he was 7. He proposed the idea to Gutierrez and she reluctantly agreed to let Ruiz play--but only on Sundays, and only if he'd finished all his schoolwork.
An ecstatic Ruiz suited up for the first time but found that organized soccer wasn't quite what he'd expected. "I didn't know what position I played, and everybody was so good, so I ended up starting out as the goalie," he says. "The team was so good that I wouldn't touch the ball the whole game." The scores would often end up 10 or even 15 to nothing, while Ruiz stood alone at the other end, scuffing his feet in the dirt. Eventually Ruiz worked up the courage to ask Don Pedro if maybe when the team was far enough ahead, he could play on the field for a bit. Don Pedro agreed to indulge his faithful goalie.
"The first ball that I touched, I scored a goal," Ruiz says. "I had never experienced any happiness like it. We won, like, 12 to nothing, but I had never felt anything like scoring a goal." Over the next few years, and despite his mother's best intentions, Ruiz began to develop a reputation as a soccer marksman. "Everybody knows each other in that neighborhood, but even more so if you play soccer," he says. "And if you're good, everybody in the area knows who you are." His friends in the gangs stopped pestering him to join and started to come watch him play. "Those were good times," he says. "I felt really secure."
The neighborhood team didn't have a coach, and of course Ruiz couldn't go to practices. "I think that soccer is something that you carry inside," he says. His natural ability could take him only so far, however. "There are people that have the gift, but unfortunately the person never comes into their life that could help them to understand what the sport is all about. Luckily, I met somebody like that when I was 11 years old."
That person was Luis Grill Prieto, an Argentine coach with vast experience at all levels of Latin American soccer. Grill had recently been hired to run the youth organization of CSD Municipal (the CSD is the Spanish acronym for "Social and Sports Club"), the most important team in the country, along with its rival, CSD Comunicaciones. "If there are 12 million people in Guatemala, maybe eight million are for Municipal and four million are for Comunicaciones," Ruiz says. Supporters of Municipal are known as rojos for the team's signature red color, and Ruiz had always been a rojo.
As with virtually every major soccer-playing country except the United States, teams in Guatemala are vertically integrated in every sense. Not only are teams promoted or demoted to the next level based on their performance, but most have youth affiliates at every age level. In Latin America, teams with enough income often run youth academies, essentially boarding schools geared for developing elite young players whose contract rights they control.
Grill began his task by taking out a newspaper ad announcing a tryout for Municipal's youth teams, open to boys between ages 12 and 20. For the young rojos in Bellos Horizontes, it was like finding a golden ticket in their chocolate bar. When Ruiz heard the news, he knew he had to be there--but he also knew his mother would never agree. Yet the rickety construction of Ruiz's apartment building had one advantage: By lifting the ceiling panels and climbing out under the roof, Ruiz could leave the house unseen, and a friend could come in and take over his babysitting duties the morning of the event.