WALDIR GUERRA : Instead of Dodging Bullets in El Salvador, Bell High School Junior Is Now Busy Dodging Defenders on the Soccer Field

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Times Staff Writer

When American football took a more straightforward approach to such matters, a good kicker was said to have an educated toe.

Judging by that standard, Waldir Guerra’s feet have already earned a master’s degree and are well on their way to a doctorate.

“When you watch him play, you will be impressed by his ball control,” said Bill Albano, Guerra’s soccer coach at Bell High School. “He is very, very fast with his feet. He does things at times that seem unusual and spectacular. But it is more than that because he is able to control the ball at a high rate of speed.


“That is his strength. He can dribble through three or four players without losing the ball.”

Guerra, 17, a junior from San Vicente, El Salvador, began his pursuit of wisdom at a tender age.

“I was little, but I remember playing with a soccer ball before I could walk,” Guerra said. “I always had a ball. Before the war began, I would go by myself to the park and shoot goals or practice kicking and dribbling. I would make up difficult things for myself--try to hit the left post or the right post, or make a shot from a hard angle--until I could do it easily.”

Invariably, the classroom was the park or the street. Bigger and tougher boys controlled the turf, but Guerra was never a spectator.

“I was always the smallest, playing with men and boys that were much older and stronger,” said Guerra, a 5-foot, 7-inch, 140-pound junior. “But I could control the ball. They could not take it from me. That is a basic part of my game.”

Even more basic is Guerra’s desire to play a game he loves with a passion.

“It is difficult to come from another country,” said Albano, who emigrated from Italy in 1959. “Especially when you speak a different language. These boys have tremendous pressure because of the C-average rule. Waldir would have played as a freshman, but he was afraid he could not pass his classes because of the language problem.


“However, he has worked hard to make sure he can compete, because soccer is his whole life.”

To understand soccer’s exaggerated importance in his life, one need only realize that a little over two years ago, Guerra was in the midst of a civil war and was dodging bullets, not just defenders on a soccer field.

“You would not be scared all the time because it truly is a good country,” Guerra said. “This (America) is nice, but the place of your birth is special.

“You could play ball as long as there was no fighting. It was a way to get away from it. But sometimes the rebels and the government soldiers would be fighting in front of your house. Then all you could do was lie down on the floor and hope it would be over soon.

“My relatives thought it was getting too dangerous to stay, so I came to the United States.”

Guerra lives with his cousins, Robert and German Lopez, and he is enjoying his gradual assimilation into the culture. He speaks more than passable English, admits to a fondness for school and girls, but he is most comfortable on a soccer field.


Last season, his first in City competition, he scored a team-high 27 goals. Albano, for one, wasn’t expecting a repeat performance.

“The other teams and coaches, when they see a talented player, they keep their eyes on him,” said Albano, whose 11-5 team will play Kennedy in Tuesday’s quarterfinal round of the City playoffs. “Once they have their eyes on him, they double- and triple-team. But he is so good with the ball that he is able to get away.”

Not only get away, but score 37 goals in the process--including the game-winner in the playoff opener against Belmont last Thursday.

For Guerra, the playoffs are another chance to continue his quest to one day play professional soccer. He hopes to get a degree first, and scouts from UCLA already have shown an interest. Besides using the playing field as a showcase for his ability, however, Guerra also uses it as a place to temporarily forget the hardship of leaving his homeland.

“When I first came, I wanted to go home because I knew no one and I couldn’t speak English,” Guerra said. “But my relatives said that the time was not right because of the danger. So I stayed and I felt alone for a time. But I began to play soccer and got in some leagues. I made friends at school, too.

“This past summer, my father, who I haven’t seen since I was a small boy, came out from New York. He is a good player and we played on the same team together. He’s a left winger and I play right wing. I love to play soccer. It was a good feeling to share the games with him.”