Mexican football legends Jorge Campos, Claudio Suarez, and Ramon Ramirez spent a recent Sunday afternoon cavorting with fans of all ages at a Verizon store in Redlands, CA. However, they weren’t there to convince people to sign their lives away for a new smartphone or to remind folks to pay their bills in a timely manner. Rather, they were supporting the work of Alianza De Futbol.
Alianza is an organization that provides opportunities for teenage footballing Latinos from underprivileged/underserved backgrounds. Sueño Alianza, for example, takes 40 of the best players from a pool of 400 to compete in front of Mexican and US scouts every fall. The Copa Alianza is a traveling tournament that pits local amateur teams from various cities against each other while the Copita Alianza does the same for teams of under 13. Finally, there’s Alianza U, which is what Campos, Suarez, and Ramirez and a host of other players, active and retired, promote. Alianza U is currently hosting a contest where two student-athletes will each be awarded a $10,000 scholarship courtesy of Verizon (hence the appearance at the Verizon store).
“With the Alianza U program,” said Ramirez who’s been with Alianza since 2007, “what we’re mainly looking to do is to support youngsters in their studies and athletics[…] Through football, they’re given a chance to win a scholarship to a university but, also, to help them and their families realize how important it is to go after these opportunities.”
Eric Wynalda, left, shown playing Ramon Ramirez and Mexico in 1997. Photo via John Mottern/Getty Images
“As a father, you really value any support for youngsters to reach for higher education and for their dreams,” added Suarez, the man formerly known as El Emperador, who has three children.
“I spoke earlier with [Campos and Ramirez] about how we could have benefitted from a program like this when we were young,” he continued. Saurez finished high school and made his professional football debut in 1988 when he turned 20 years old. He knows all too well that his story and that of his peers is a rare one, which is why he joined Alianza. He wants young athletes to not only get a fair shot at a career as a professional athlete but to also have college in mind as a backup plan.
The USA is unique in its athlete development in the sense that the rest of the world doesn’t follow the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) model. NCAA athletes, especially those in gridiron (NFL-style) football and basketball, follow a pipeline from college sports to professional sports through scouting programs and draft picks. The pipeline for college soccer leads to two roads: Major League Soccer and Major Indoor League Soccer. The college version of the sport doesn’t follow FIFA laws resulting in a very different game that college players are immediately unprepared for (countdown clocks, unlimited substitutions, mandatory overtime periods after every tie, etc). The NCAA pipeline doesn’t extend into the country’s minor leagues such as the North American Soccer League, one of many pro amateur leagues in the country.
Jorge Campos, Claudio Suarez, and Ramon Ramirez at Alianza U event
There’s also a financial barrier young athletes in the U.S. have to contend with and that’s the pay-to-play structure. Non-collegiate players hoping to sign with a club in the U.S. must pay to tryout for a club. Paying hundreds of dollars for nothing but a chance to be seen by a scout for a few minutes is a barrier for talented youth from low-income backgrounds. Teams in other leagues/countries cover these costs instead. It’s a matter of contention for U.S. scouts who see talented players make the trip south to play in Mexico where clubs are willing to pay to bring in new, young talent into their academies. A few MLS and non-MLS teams have opened their own academies and also offer sports scholarships to cover the costs of attendance but pay-to-play still stands.
Alianza De Futbol provides a solution to both of these issues with its scouting, tournament, and academic programs. The current Alianza tour guarantees a club contract for the seven best players of the tournament after the final as it has in the past.
On the professional end, Club Leon midfielder Dennis Flores made his way into that team’s starting XI via Alianza. He made his professional debut earlier this year against Veracruz and is also a member of the U.S. U-23 team. Meanwhile, Julio Morales was stuck in San Jose until Alianza noticed him. He signed a contract with Chivas de Guadalajara’s youth squad in 2010 and is currently playing on loan with Tepic.
On the academic side, Alianza awarded a scholarship to Martin Melchor (Coastal Carolina University) and Joey Chica (CSU Dominguez Hills) last year to cover some of their tuition fees while playing college ball.
“Not everyone can make it to the professional level,” said Campos who’s worked with Alianza for many years. “I love what the program has accomplished for all these youngsters who dream of becoming pros and playing in a World Cup…but it’s not just about football. It’s also about furthering their dreams of a higher education.”
Alianza De Futbol will be in San Francisco the weekend of August 30th and in El Paso the weekend of September 6th.