In Praise of Perseverance
Posted on October 10, 2012 3:11 am
I was wrong about Herediano.
When the draw for this season’s CONCACAF Champions League was announced in June, Real Salt Lake appeared prohibitive favorites to reach the knockout round. While 2012 Torneo de Verano champions Herediano entered Group 2 as the highest seed, I could not help but notice the organizational mess that threatens the club’s very existence to this day. Constant difficulties with unpaid salaries overshadowed their most recent domestic conquest; and within a week of lifting their first trophy in 19 years, RBC Radio Limitada, the company run by mother-and-son duo Roxie Blen and Mario Sotela that counts Herediano among its properties, forced the players to participate in a post-season friendly in order to pay up the “championship” bonuses through ticket revenue. Star players Jose Carlos Cancela, Jorge Barbosa and Yosimar Arias subsequently made the wise career decision to abandon ship and move to more stable clubs, weakening the team ahead of the current season.
What has happened since then is astounding: while conditions off the pitch have worsened significantly, Herediano find themselves in second place in the Costa Rican Torneo de Invierno table, with their chances of reaching the playoffs and defending their title well intact. In the CCL, the florenses hold the advantage over RSL ahead of the decisive match in the Rio Tinto Stadium, where only a 1-0 defeat or a loss by two goals will prevent El Team from making the quarterfinals. Such success can only be attributed to a remarkable, almost incomprehensible show of character from the players, under conditions that no professional should ever face.
The first sign that the club’s finances had not stabilized over the off-season appeared within days of their Champions League-opening victory over RSL, when the players went on strike, demanding the full balance of their salaries to date. Club spokesman Roberto Carpio expressed hopes that the payments would be delivered on August 10; a week later, the front office announced that the gate revenue from the next two home games would be used to cover the unpaid wages.
The following disruption had a greater potential to affect the squad’s on-field performance: at the beginning of September, the club fired Odir Jacques, the man who had masterminded the Torneo de Verano triumph after coming in mid-season, accusing him of extorting players for time on the field and demanding a 10 percent cut of their contracts if they got signed abroad. The allegations are still the subject of speculation; nonetheless, fellow Costa Rican grande Cartagines saw no problem in signing the Brazilian the very next week, while assistant head coach Claudio Jara got the promotion at Herediano.
Whatever Jacques’ sins, the club’s financial distress fell squarely at the feet of RBC Radio Limitada, and in mid-September the Club Sport Herediano Association decided to sue RBC before the Chamber of Commerce, after company Vice President Sotela failed to fulfill his commitment to pay off club debts with state institutions and the Association itself. The players, meanwhile, began to take autonomous measures in order to secure their well-being: from the ticket money received, they created a joint emergency fund. It was around this time that they managed to gut out a vital 1-0 win over Tauro in Panama, in spite of the disorganization that awaited them at home.
The situation devolved into outright chaos nine days ago: after meeting with Sotela, players Minor Diaz and Jose Garro revealed that the club still owed them back-pay from mid-August, and that the front office had decided to concede ticket revenue (less routine payments to UNAFUT and other institutions) from the team’s remaining home games instead of paying them directly. Carpio denied the story; but in their next league match against Limon FC (which Herediano won 2-0 despite the players only training once the week before), players Ismael Gomez and Yendrick Ruiz literally manned the booths, selling tickets and collecting the team “salary” right from the fans. At halftime, defender Cristian Montero generated more funds by grabbing a loudspeaker and organizing a raffle for star forward Victor “Mambo” Nunez’s jersey.
In fact, more than the victory, the players themselves are responsible for the match even taking place: the Estadio Rosabal Cordero had been shut down for two days by the National Insurance Institute (INS) for an overdue club debt of $3,800. Up stepped Montero and another unnamed player to pay off Herediano’s negative balance with the INS and a further $2,200 to UNAFUT, while ex-club director Gerardo Mora covered a $10,000 payment to the Heredia Public Services Company for lighting and water at the stadium.
Captain Pablo Salazar is absolutely correct in stating that these tribulations “should not happen” to the defending champions – or in any professional context, for that matter. Unfortunately, given Sotela’s previous role in the demise of Liberia Mia, there appears little hope that these disastrous circumstances will improve in the short term. The players’ ability to focus on the football, band together financially and keep the club itself in business, though, should serve as a warning to anyone who would underestimate their competitiveness on the field, myself included.