In Latin America’s baseball capital, a soccer town stands out
By Jacob Kushner
At the Viejo Jack bar in the town of Jarabacoa, the World Cup match between Brazil and the Ivory Coast is playing on a fuzzy projector screen. At this very moment across most of Latin America, millions of soccer fans are gathering in bars just like this to watch their favorite team progress toward the championship. Here at the Viejo Jack, there are exactly five such fans.
This is the Dominican Republic, where baseball is the second most commonly spoken language—where kids with no bats, balls or gloves use broom sticks, pieces of plastic and their bare hands to imitate what is indisputably this nation’s athletic passion.
But now the language of fútbol—‘estriker,’ patada and gol—is sneaking into the baseball-centric vocabulary of Dominicans who are taking interest in the world’s most popular sport.
“The only ones who care about soccer here are foreigners,” says Gabriel Vazquez, a 29-year-old bartender from Caracas wearing a Wesley Sneijder Inter Milan jersey. Vazquez is rooting for the Ivory Coast, but he is surrounded by Dominicans who seem to switch allegiances during a match as often as the ball switches possession. He takes a sip of whiskey as he comments on this year’s Brazilian team.
“It’s an unusual group—not very technical,” he tells his Dominican friends.
The three Dominicans sitting near the front of the bar affirm their support for Brazil. It’s a bigger name team—that is, one they’ve heard of.
The excitement of the World Cup may be turning Dominicans into soccer fans, but the true force behind Jarabacoa’s soccer culture aren’t old enough to sit and have a drink here at the Viejo Jack bar. They spend their weekends over at the Los Padres school—kids of all ages—running drills, practicing their footwork and goal kicks, and often without the direction of coaches or trainers. All of the schools’ four small fields have been retrofitted from baseball diamonds for soccer, and younger students even use the indoor basketball court to kick around a ball on weekends.
Soccer in Jarabacoa is as natural an obsession to these kids as baseball is to youth everywhere else in the Dominican.
“How long have I played soccer?” says second-year high school student and keeper Anderson Hernando. “Always.” (Hernando’s love for the game runs so deep he even attended open practice during the final World Cup match between Spain and Holland. “Sure, it’s on TV, but we’re here to play.”)
The patrons watching the Brazil-Ivory coast game at the Viejo Jack have a more passive, refined dedication to the game than the students at Los Padres. They order Vat 69 and Jack Daniels whisky and sip Chilean white wine in a country where most people quench their thirst with $5 liters of rum.
This elite fan base is a big part of why locals call Jarabacoa the Dominican Republic’s ‘soccer city.’ More than a few bars here cater to that crowd, showing soccer matches in place of the usual American music videos and Major League Baseball games. And Jarabacoa residents have little reason to celebrate baseball as do natives of other Dominican towns like the famous San Pedro de Macoris, which has sent 76 players to the U.S. major leagues (Jarabacoa claims just one).
Suddenly the bar erupts into shouts as Brazil midfielder Ricardo “Kaká” dos Santos Leite is issued a red card. The replay shows Ivory Coast midfielder Abdul Kader Keita pretending to have been hit in the face by Kaká in a collision. The Viejo Jack spectators laugh as they reenact the penalty draw, stunned at such an erroneous call by the officials. Dominicans are accustomed to berating baseball umps over the merits of a high and outside curve ball or a slide into home plate—but never such a blatant misjudgment as this.
As the game ends (Brazil 3, Ivory Coast, 1), the bartender switches the TV to a Dominican Soccer Federation match taking place live in Santo Domingo. The sounds of cheering fans and Vuvuzela noise-makers in Johanesburg give way to the silence of a few dozen spectators watching quietly from the side of a torn-up field.
Jacob Kushner is a freelance journalist in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Contact him at email@example.com
Photos Courtesy of Jacob Kushner