For the last two years, Mexico has hosted a team of players from the Okanagan’s Masters League of soccer, and this September was our turn to return the favour.
“For the last year they’ve been talking to me about coming up to Canada one day,” said John Ugyan, the president of the Okanagan Masters League. “We hadn’t expected anything to come of it, as you know, Mexicans in general are very poor and the last they can afford is to pay for a trip to play two games of football. Then a month I got the email that said 21 had bought plane tickets, and we had two weeks to get ourselves a team together.”
For the last week, the Okanagan has hosted the 29 players and a few of their wives from Mexico. The local players have done their best to give their guests an entertaining vacation, aside from the soccer. Bike rentals and rides up into the hills, a barbecue for all of both teams, stopping by to play Kelowna’s piano for a song with the team, and a party out on Okanagan Lake as well.
The annual event grew out of Ugyan’s love for football. During his vacations to Zihautanejo, he wanted to keep up with the sport he played at home, eventually finding a team to join six years ago through a meeting with some other Canadians. Then he and some players from the Okanagan Masters League went down three years ago, and the tradition was born.
“We all love soccer, and if we didn’t want to keep playing, none of this would have happened,” said Ugyan. “The guys you see on the field here are the guys who will be playing until they’re totally unable to play.”
The Okanagan team took home the win in both games they hosted, 2-1 in Kelowna on Sept. 17 and 4-3 on Sept. 20. The players, from Penticton, Summerland, and Kelowna, were mostly over 60, with a few who were over 50 to even out the ages with the players from Mexico. The Sunday game in particular was a close, even match, with Mexico taking up a 3-1 lead until well into the second half.
“It was very good, a tie would have been fine with a game like this, but I’ll take a 4-3 win,” said player and coach Harry Higson. “They’ve beaten us a couple times before. We normally play the first game and it’s fairly even, and we might win by the odd goal, but the second game they get serious and bring in ringers from all around. Now we’ve beaten them twice here, and we’ll be back down there in January until February.”
The games and the trips are about more than just soccer. The team and players also raise money to purchase soccer shoes for the poorest kids in Mexico, who would otherwise be unable to afford them.
“We raised about $1,200 last year, and the organizers there made sure the money went to those kids. Then they made arrangements to bring them to the last game, and make a big presentation to the kids, and it was fantastic to see the smiles on their faces,” said Ugyan. “Other clubs here learned we were going, and contributed jerseys they weren’t using and we gave those away too.”
The Okanagan Masters League Playoffs between Kelowna and the South Okanagan start Sept. 23 at Dale-Meadows Field in Summerland. If you would like to donate, you can contact John Ugyan at email@example.com.
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