ORLANDO, Fla. – Death, destruction and ongoing devastation are not the usual backdrop to a soccer game. But Orlando City SC’s specially-arranged friendly with the Puerto Rico national team on Saturday is no usual game.
Just to start with, it will the final appearance in purple of Lions captain and three-year face of the franchise Kaká, who will be moving on to new ventures in 2018.
More importantly, it will be a fundraising call to action in the heart of the country’s second-largest Puerto Rican community in the wake of Hurricane Maria. All parties are hoping the match will highlight how the current restoration efforts are still far from enough, and are in danger of moving out of the public eye.
As Puerto Rico Football Federation second vice-president Homero Gonzalez Lopez explained, it is an urgent matter of putting the storm-ravaged island back on the map.
“Right now, we are going through very difficult times,” he said. “There are still many people who don’t have a roof over their heads and it is still difficult to reach some areas. There are people who don’t have enough water or food, so the problems are many.
“We are so grateful to the people of Orlando and to Orlando City for putting on this game and giving us the chance to help the suffering of many. This helps to put Puerto Rico soccer back on its feet, but many people [still need] more than that.”
The national team has been in limbo since their Caribbean home was rocked by Hurricane Irma on September 7 and ravaged by Hurricane Maria two weeks later. Some players were stranded away from their families in the US or, in one case, Finland. Many others had to face the killer storm directly, including striker Hector ‘Buena Vibra’ Ramos, whose wife was a week short of giving birth.
“It was just devastation,” he said via an interpreter. “My town of Maunabo was right under the eye of the hurricane and was one of the most affected towns of the hurricane. They recorded winds up to 205 mph. A lot of the people don’t live in the town but live in difficult locations, and most houses lost doors, windows, roofs.
“Literally, my family went through all the difficulties you could imagine. It took two days just to get to the neighboring town because there were so many trees, debris and electrical posts down.”
Seven days after Maria, Ramos’ son was born at a hospital with no power and little facilities. Thankfully, there were no complications and now, a month later, mother and son are doing fine.
Ramos spent three weeks after the hurricane helping to clear the streets, and helping his family to get gas and water – the two commodities that continue to be in shortest supply. He then had to fly out with a group of his teammates to get playing again, first for Puerto Rico FC in the NASL, and then the national team for Saturday’s game.
Asked how important it is to get the message across that Puerto Rico still needs aid, he replied in clear Spanish. “Muy, muy, MUY importante,” he insisted. “We’re very grateful to this community – and throughout the United States – for this initiative,” he added via interpreter. “It is going to help a lot, but there is still much to do.”
Andres Cabrero was out of the immediate danger, but frantic with worry as the hurricane ripped through his home town of Guaynabo. The midfielder plays for Kultsu in Finland, and struggled to get any messages back from the island before learning his family were okay and his house largely intact.
“For the first few weeks I couldn’t get in because the airport was down, and I was hearing terrible stories about people having to queue seven hours for basics like water and gas,” he explained. “There was terrible heat and some robberies. Even now, it can go from not so bad in San Juan to places that still can’t be reached. The heat was so bad, with no electricity, some people have passed [away].”
Former MLS midfielder Jeremy Hall was in Sacramento, where he plays for the Republic in the USL.
“My family was on the island and it was just chaotic for a few weeks with the power being out. Eventually we found out everyone was safe and there was a big sigh of relief.
“But these are strong people, here and in Houston with [Hurricane] Harvey, and the wildfires we’ve seen in Northern California. It has been a crazy year but people are very resilient and events like [Saturday’s] are very important in raising awareness of what still needs to be done.”
Team spokesman Ignacio Rodriguez summed up the feelings of everyone involved for the ongoing relief work, and the support of the Orlando community.
“It’s been very emotional,” he said. “To have all these people opening their doors for us, making it an unbelievable experience. Many of our guys have been through a lot and, when we went for a meal at a restaurant the other night, I heard one of them say, ‘Thank god it’s not another tuna sandwich.’
“Just trying to keep the Federation together has been a challenge, as our stadium has been completely destroyed and it will take a long time to recover. But so many people have stepped up to the plate for us, with flights, hotels, meals, transport, we are confident we will make it back, both the team and the island.”