The fishermen of La Pirraya
The wedding was an unforgettable occasion, with guests including dozens of local people from each and every one of the humble districts of San Sebastian island, the bay of Jiquilisco and neighbouring areas. People from Rancho Viejo, Costa del Sol, Chirilagua, California all made their way to La Pirraya in a symbolic show of loyalty.
They then made the 20-minute crossing on boats that tirelessly shuttled between the jetty at Puerto Parada and the island. The groom, Agustin Ruiz, was better known to most people than the bride, Idalia Marvin, but some did not know them at all. All they knew was that it was the wedding day of the man who scored the goals for the El Salvador beach soccer team, one of the heroes of Puerto Vallarta and one of the fishermen who helped take El Salvador to the World Cup. And that was good enough for them.
La Pirraya has produced more successful footballers per square kilometre than anywhere else in El Salvador. Five of the 12 members of the country's beach soccer team were born on the island. This is no ordinary statistic, but then ordinary is not a word you would use to describe anything that has happened in this small patch of earth in the last four years.
It all began in 2004 when Israel Cruz, a representative of the Salvadorean football association (FESFUT) got to know the island as part of a national football development programme. Aware of the beach soccer's potential on the islands of La Pirraya, Rancho Viejo and San Sebastian, the frequency of Cruz's visits to the region increased to up to three times a week. I think how tiring those journeys - more than 100 a year - must have been as the boat taking me to La Pirraya negotiates a mangrove swamp.
"You even see blood on the pitches around here. You play out of love for the game but nobody likes losing. We say 'Don't get angry' because people who get angry lose and we don't let them play," says international defender Medardo Lobos to illustrate the intensity of matches in the area and the typical mentality of the players.
Fishing for a living
With Cruz's assistance, a tournament was soon set up for each island as well as a "best of the best" event for the champions of each district. "After seeing how the people lived, we opted for a more social project that included primary schools, beach soccer, small-sided football and women's football. Then we created a beach soccer team for the department of Usulutan," explained Cruz in an interview in 2006.
When FESFUT asked him to put together a national beach soccer team to take to an invitational tournament in Costa Rica, Cruz did not hesitate to call up the best players from the myriad of recreational tournaments he had organised, even though the association recommended that he rely on first- and second-division players.
After subjecting them to an exhaustive series of tests and ascertaining that the rigours of their daily lives as fisherman had worked wonders for the physical fitness - the players were all above average in terms of musculature and only two players' bodies contained more than ten per cent fat. Cruz then declared his team ready, although in the end the trip fell through due to lack of funds. The coach carried on as before, working for the Usulutan amateur football association.
His chance came just over a year later, in June 2007, when the as yet untried beach soccer team was entered for the CONCACAF qualifying tournament for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup following a request from FIFA. Cruz was put in charge and he immediately thought of his island proteges. His inexperience counted against him as El Salvador were unsuccessful in their matches against the USA (9-5), Mexico (6-4) and Costa Rica (4-3), but a strong feeling remained that the team had a future.
"Our inexperience worked against us, that's clear; but considering that we had never played an international qualifier before, the difference with respect to teams who had being playing for years was not that great; we clearly improved with each match," recalled Cruz.
His efforts earned him an invitation from the Costa Rica football association to the inauguration of a beach soccer pitch for their national league the following September. This proved to be a gratifying experience, as El Salvador won their first ever beach soccer match and were joined by striker Agustin Ruiz, who had taken part in the preparations for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup preliminary competition but not the tournament itself.
Seven months later, Ruiz had become one of the team's most veteran players and had also joined the no less heroic ranks of Salvadoreans who are married. Four days before the wedding, we were privy to the rehearsals as well as to the couple's emotions and the aspirations in the run-up to the big event. They are young people just like any others, humble and full of optimism; they have known each other all their lives and come from the local area. During their courtship, Idalia would watch Agustin play at La Canchita, a sandy square on which two sets of goalposts promise either glory or ignominy.
After leaving La Canchita, the couple spoke a lot about the future, in which for the next few months football would not enter into their plans. This was because the national team would not be in action from November to January and as a responsible adult, Ruiz could not think of any other way to earn a living than on board a fishing boat.
No big deal
Other players with similar ideas included Cipriano Hernando, the 17-year-old forward who caused a sensation at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup qualifiers. For personal reasons he decided to leave Espiritu Santo island and travel to the USA as an illegal immigrant.
Consequently, the team's initial surprise at being called up for training and the novelty of taking part in another FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup preliminary competition, this time in Puerto Vallarta against the same opponents, turned to concern.
First of all, there was a new coach, Rudy Gonzalez; secondly, there were five places to be filled in the side following Hernandez's departure. However, the project was set to work wonders once again. This was largely due to Gonzalez's optimism and positive talking. Indeed, one month before setting off for Puerto Vallarta, he was bold enough to say that "the objective is to secure a ticket to the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup. After what they achieved at the last World Cup, the group is more solid and we are pleased with the performance levels; we are not novices."
The coach's defiant tone soon infected the players. For example, the goalkeeper and only player hailing from the Salvadorean capital, Luis Rodas, a veteran of the previous qualifying campaign, dismissed the threat posed by the Costa Ricans. "Mexico's star players are their goalkeeper and a couple of others players, but they're no big deal," said the 24-year-old, who is a member of the parish of Don Rua.
Even the team's new recruits shared in the group's self-confidence. "Everyone looks down on us because we don't have any experience, but don't rule us out, we will be fighting to the death," said "Ronaldinho", a.k.a. Elias Ramirez, a barnstorming forward who joined the national team purely by chance through a man he met when he was playing in a local side.
"He said he wanted me to join a second-division team and he took me to San Salvador for a time. One day some people from FESFUT came along to watch some players and they asked me if I wanted to go for a trial for the beach soccer team." That was in March.
Ramirez took part in the ambitious training schedule that had begun in February, consisting of three training sessions per week, held alternately in La Pirraya, El Espino island and Costa del Sol.
The news spread like wildfire. On the night of 19 April it reached La Pirraya, leaving hundreds of its inhabitants incredulous and glowing with pride: five of their boys - Medardo Lobo, Wilber Hernandez, Tomas Antonio Hernandez, Agustin Ruiz and Roberto Membreno - had played a major part in their country's qualification for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Marseille 2008, beating Costa Rica 24 hours after a historic victory over former FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup runners-up the USA.
"It was an unbelievable feeling; we were all thrilled, many of us couldn't even speak to the journalists because they were crying," admitted the coach as he described the feelings unleashed by one of the greatest moments in Salvadorean footballing history. "There was even more commotion than when Firpo won the league," said vendor Jose Cortez on recalling the depth of feeling that swept through the area, a happy sense of anticipation that will intensify from 17 July when the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup kicks off in the south of France.
One knock-on effect of this effervescent feeling is that Atletico Balboa, who won the second-division Apertura 2007 championship, have already offered work to Luis Rodas, Elias Ramirez and Agustin Ruiz - not bad for three sons of La Pirraya, California and Espiritu Santo who only used to play football as a pastime when the sea was too rough to go out in.