Fish Story

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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.

Ruiz successfully executed his plan, and with two friends and one pair of soccer shoes among the three of them, he made his way to the field in the city center. "I remember the stadium was full of children, thousands of them," Ruiz says. "I was thinking, 'Man, some of these kids play soccer for real. They're going to be really good.'" As the youngest, Ruiz's turn with the shoes came first, and he began a 15-minute scrimmage under Grill's watchful gaze. Ruiz made the cut and was invited to keep training with the youth team.

For three months Ruiz kept his triumph secret from his mother, sneaking out through the ceiling every Tuesday and Thursday until a neighbor alerted her to the strange goings-on. "When she found out, man did she hit me!" Ruiz says. He was grounded as punishment, and it appeared his career with Municipal was over--until several days later, when a knock came at the door. To Ruiz's amazement, Grill himself had come looking for him, but Ruiz wasn't about to risk his mother's wrath again. He told Grill to come back on Sunday afternoon when Gutierrez would be home.

When the Municipal coach began to lay out his case to Ruiz's mother the next Sunday, Ruiz could hardly believe his ears. "[Grill] said, 'I've been in Argentina, I've been in Chile, I've been in Mexico, and I've never seen a player of his age that can play like he can,'" Ruiz says. Though he sat meekly while his mother and his coach argued back and forth, Ruiz was doing backflips inside. Finally Grill offered to place Ruiz in the team's youth academy, where he would get free schooling, room and board. Gutierrez didn't like the idea of her only son leaving home, but the offer was just too good, and she tearfully agreed. "She said, 'OK, you can go, but you'd better be the best player in Guatemala.'"

From that moment, Grill became the closest thing Ruiz had ever had to a father. "Carlos was a special case from the beginning," Grill says. "He never knew his father, so we began talking a lot." The coach had two children of his own, but Ruiz quickly became a third. Grill knew he had a prodigy on his hands. Now 84, Grill still marvels at the twist of fate that brought them together. "I have a pretty long résumé, 55 years as a coach, and I understand that I can make mistakes like anybody," Grill says. "But out of all those kids, I picked him because I knew he would be the one."

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Rick Kennedy