Soccer Being Kicked Around by Officials, Latinos Say

Times Staff Writer

When soccer players show up to practice at the park near the Boyle Heights Recreation Center, Santiago Cuevas reluctantly asks them to leave.

Cuevas, a recreation director who believes that sports are for everyone, says he has little choice.

"They chew up the grass with their cleats," he said, glancing out over a field that hasn't been green for several years. "I hate to do it, but at this rate, we'll never have grass again."

Organized adult- and youth-league soccer matches are staged each weekend at the park, popularly called El Hoyo --the hole--because of its sunken configuration. But despite drawing up to 3,000 spectators on weekends, soccer is prohibited during the week.

"It's incredible how the games draw, but we can't allow them here to practice during the week," Cuevas said.

Charges of Racism

The stance is part of a controversial city proposal that in recent weeks has drawn charges of discrimination and racism from some segments of the Latino community, which, everyone agrees, gets a big kick out of soccer.

In an effort to reduce the wear and tear on 66 Los Angeles parks, most of them located in inner-city neighborhoods, Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department officials proposed last month to outlaw all pick-up soccer games and weekday organized soccer practices. Soccer, city officials insist, wears out park fields quicker than other sports.

"These folks come in and play, play and play," said James Hadaway, Recreation and Parks Department general manager, "which is fine, but we're looking to grow grass. We'll put in new grass in many parks, and in two weeks, it's gone."

To emphasize that the plan was not arbitrary, city officials pledged that the proposal, still under study, would not affect organized soccer leagues that pay for the weekend use of the parks.

But the informal ban has brought a storm of protest from Latinos, who contend that the proposal is discriminatory, and from soccer lovers, who believe that their sport is being penalized to accommodate more familiar athletic activities.

Fewer Parks Included

Hadaway and other Recreation and Parks Department officials were taken aback by the protests and scaled back the proposal to include only 35 parks, including El Hoyo , but that has not satisfied the plan's critics.

"Can you imagine such a thing?" asked Margarito Gutierrez, a Boyle Heights activist. "We have all these problems with gangs and drugs, and they want to ban soccer here at Boyle Heights and other inner-city parks. Why don't they do this with baseball or basketball?

"This smacks of racism because Latinos like to play soccer."

Also, other critics point out, it seemed odd that city officials would want to ban some soccer activities at a time when the United States is preparing to be host of the 1994 World Cup, an event that soccer aficionados contend easily dwarfs the Super Bowl, the World Series and the Kentucky Derby in excitement, fan interest and revenue.

"From a distance, it seemed that soccer was being squeezed out," said Frank Rojas, executive secretary of the California Soccer Assn., a group that has 800 teams and an estimated 20,000 players.

"It seemed that the (Recreation and Parks Department) people making the decision know nothing about soccer," he said.

Still, some Eastside residents who live near the Boyle Heights Recreation Center favor the ban because it may help curb the excessive drinking and lewd behavior attributed to some soccer players.

"Sometimes, they'll throw beer cans and go to the bathroom in my yard," said Armando Chavez, who lives a stone's throw from El Hoyo . "Discrimination? Yeah, they're doing stuff in my yard. . . ."

More Study

Hadaway has asked for more study on the proposal in order to reach an accommodation between the soccer players and those who want to keep the parks green.

"We tried a lot of different things, even fencing off some fields to let new grass grow," he said. "Once it's ready, we'll allow some soccer use of it."

At Griffith Park, for example, a deal was struck two years ago when a soccer field next to the tennis courts was fenced off to put in new sod. Then, Hadaway said, soccer matches were scheduled in advance, and the hours of play were regulated.

The compromise has proved successful and may be implemented at other parks, Hadaway said. In the meanwhile, he said, some sort of ban might be needed to give the parks, already in demand by after-hours baseball, football and other sports leagues, a rest.

Part of the problem, Hadaway acknowledged, is that there are not many soccer fields in the city, despite the long support the sport has enjoyed in Los Angeles. Although the city ran a municipal soccer league with players from Europe and Latin America in the 1940s and 1950s, few soccer fields were built. Instead, most of the city's parks are dominated by baseball diamonds.

That has prompted soccer players who show up at many inner-city parks--such as Toberman, Hoover, Boyle Heights, Normandie and Queen Anne--to play their hearts out at the expense of the grass. They even play in areas usually reserved for picnickers and joggers.

Impromptu Match

At Echo Park Lake the other day, a group of Mexicans and Colombians started an impromptu game in a small lawn area dominated by several palm trees and a bust of Cuban revolutionary figure and poet Jose Marti.

"We got thrown out of two parks already today," complained Javier Jimenez, 21, as he and his compatriots tried to score against the opposition.

Twenty minutes into the action, an errant goal kick by Jimenez caromed off the bust and into the midst of picnickers.

"Get out of here," one of the picnickers growled.

Jimenez and the others decided to leave to avoid trouble.

"Parks 3, soccer 0," he shrugged.

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