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April 23, 2004
What goes around comes back around. Its just that sometimes it takes a while. Fifteen years if you are Puerto Rico Islanders coach Vitor Hugo Barros.
Thats how long it has been since Barros came to Puerto Rico from his native Brazil at the behest of then-P.R. soccer federation president Roberto Monroig. Monroigs idea was to put Puerto Rican soccer on the international map by getting an island team together.
Barros had played for 17 teams over 18 years, among them Gremio, International, Colectiva, Palmeras and Santa Cruz. He lived to play soccer, but one of his coaches, Tele Santana, saw coaching potential in Barros. He admired Barros vision, his ability to "see the floor." Turned out, Barros had a knack for it. In his first coaching experience his team won its league championship. After four years of seasoning in Brazil, Barros took Monroig up on his offer.
"I was excited about the job because I had this idea of working on both technique and physical fitness," said Barros. "But when I got to Puerto Rico I discovered I had nothing to work with. The team was like a car that needed to get to Ponce but didnt have any gas."
Barros started at the beginning, with lots of running in hopes of improving the players stamina. Federation officials didnt like what they saw. They had dug deep into their pockets to bring a coach from the sports cradle. They wanted footwork, tactics and Barros was teaching basic phys ed.
"It was hard to make them understand that their players didnt even have the elementary fitness [to last through an entire match]," said Barros. "The players I found didnt know the games fundamentals."
For two years, Barros worked on his new project. But when it came time for international play, the federation opted instead to bring in a team of well-seasoned U.S. players of Puerto Rican descent to represent the island. With the U.S. players came a U.S. coach and Barros was bounced.
"Its something that is way in the past," said Barros, who says he harbors no ill feelings. "But what hurt was when they had the tryouts for the team, the group I had prepared wouldnt go in protest. I was upset because I didnt want them to just give up."
At that point, any other hired coach probably would have thrown in the towel. But instead of getting on a flight back to Brazil, Barros decided to help Puerto Rico realize its potential.
"I started to put together a youth program and Dr. Emilio Torres agreed to finance the project," said Barros.
Club Sporting San Juan was started with the goal of creating an elite travel team. Made up of young players, the club participated in 140 "friendlies" from 1994 through 2001. During that time, the youngsters developed their skills. Ten years later, Barros had the nucleus of a pro team ripe and ready for picking just in time for the arrival of the United Soccer Leagues Islanders franchise.
Of the eight local players on the 22-man roster, five grew up with Barros. The other three played under Barros during his various stints coaching local club Quintana.
"The [Puerto Rico] federation has always had so many divisions and was pulling itself in so many different directions," said Barros. "But in order for soccer to move forward everyone has to row the boat together."
Barros said he is particularly cheered by the news that after six years, the local federation finally held elections under FIFAs watchful eye. Jose Serralta, Barros longtime friend, won in a close race, defeating Womens Superior League president and former womens team goalie Anita Rabell, 66-60.
"Finally there is harmony," said Barros of the elections. "Thats why I believe this project [Islanders] will be successful this time."
The Islanders were a financial failure in their first go as a franchise in San Juan 1995, lasting seven games before being shipped to Texas. Many in the soccer community believe the Islanders were doomed because of the federations troubles. Two years ago, FIFA came to Puerto Rico and essentially repossessed the local entity, freezing its $250,000 annual budget in the process. The local Olympic Committee followed suit. After a year and half of investigation and deliberation, a five-member, FIFA-appointed "normalizing committee" finally established order and on April 16, 36 soccer organizations were given voting privileges.
"In a short period of time, Puerto Rican soccer is going to come out of limbo and move up to a very privileged standing within FIFA," said Barros. "This team [Islanders] is going to make Puerto Ricans stand up and say We do things right here."
Barros is already getting positive feedback. Despite the Islanders 1-0 inaugural loss last week in overtime to the Toronto Lynx, Barros is confident of the teams potential.
"Because we didnt have any preseason matches I had my doubts as to how we were going to fare against the other pro teams in the league," said Barros. "But when I saw how the match started I was in awe. I knew then we werent so far from the other teams."
The Islanders lost the match after Torontos Ali Gerba got the ball and, in a scramble in front of the Lynx goal, the ball glanced off the foot of Islanders Diego Deering for the score.
Lynx coach Duncan Wilde said it could have gone either way. He said he was impressed by Barros, a coach he doesnt know.
"We didnt think they were going to be able to recruit as high of a caliber of player as they did," said Wilde.
Having spent so many years in the amateur ranks means Barros still has to pass muster in this leagues pro circles. Hes confident he will. Its been a full circle from that day 15 years ago when the federation took the island team off his hands for fear it wasnt good enough.
"I waited 15 years for the most glorious moment of my coaching career last Saturday night. I had tears in my eyes when I saw all the fans cheering for us," said Barros. "But that first game was a payback to myself for all the good things that have happened to me in my life because of soccer. I see this is a chance for me to give back everything that soccer gave me."
NOTE: More than 5,000 people attended the Puerto Rico Islanders inaugural game versus the Toronto Lynx, numbers that far surpass the winter league baseball attendance figures. Thanks go to Puerto Ricos soccer moms, who packed the stadium with kids.
Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.