Manolo Sanchez was in his hotel room when he looked at the clock. It was time for Monica Puig’s gold medal match in the women’s tennis singles final at the Rio Olympics. Immediately the San Antonio FC striker asked his Jamaican teammate to turn on the television to the channel broadcasting the match. As the match went on, both footballers started cheering for Puig. And once she won, the Puerto Rican was ecstatic. “I was jumping all around the room,” he says, smiling.
Meanwhile, back in Puerto Rico, the Federacion Puertorriquena de Futbol general secretary Ignacio Rodriguez started making arrangements for the sport’s governing body in the country to celebrate Puig’s return home. Puig’s was the country’s first ever Olympic gold. Yet more importantly, her victory put the tiny island nation on the world map. That, particularly, was the one facet the country’s footballers appreciate the most. “The Puerto Rican identity was realised again,” asserts Sanchez.
Over 22 years ago, ahead of Puerto Rico’s 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign, the then coach was forced to recruit players born and residing in the United States. As a US Territory, players born in the US mainland were eligible to play for the Caribbean country’s national team. Since then emerged a sense of a missing identity within the national team. “Foreign based players became the Puerto Rican team. So the local players started wondering, what about us? We’re good players too. Why don’t we get picked?” mentions Andres Cabrero. “The federation recognised that. And now this is the first generation of Puerto Rican footballers where a majority of the players are from the island itself.”
The group had just flown 14 hours from New York and had barely been at the hotel for over an hour when a member of the support staff voices a solitary instruction: “Be ready for practice in an hour.”
There is a sense of national pride. “The federation earlier looked more at foreign born players of Puerto Rican descent. Those players may not be as pressed to perform well because they’ve never really lived in the country. The local players though realise the value of playing for our country every time we wear the jersey,” asserts Cabrero, who plays his club football for Kultsu in Finland. Then there is the question of actually being recognised as a Puerto Rican, especially since the island is still considered a US territory.
In May, the team had actually hosted the United States for a friendly, losing 3-1 eventually, but opening eyes towards the idea of the country being independent. “People at least in the US started realising that this is something different,” says Rodriguez. A month later, a second division club team in the US, Puerto Rico FC, which is incidentally owned by NBA star Carmelo Anthony, was made to play the Puerto Rican national team in a friendly in New York. “That was on the Puerto Rican day parade. It was a good for the American public to see our culture and realise our country’s own identity,” he adds.
Agreeing to come to India is also a way for the federation to promote its players and country. “Maybe somebody here can get a club contract,” Rodriguez says. The players too were keen on the idea, especially since the Indian Super League has caught the attention of the Puerto Rican public.
A request for a team photo is enthusiastically received. And almost with practised bravado, the national flag is brandished for the players to pose behind with.