As lightning sizzled on the far western horizon Tuesday afternoon, about 50 teenage — and adult — soccer players paid little heed as they jogged through the lush grass at Balloon Fiesta Park.
After several laps, they split into groups, field players going through agility and ball-control drills and goal keepers diving and fielding shots.
Pretty standard stuff as far as summer soccer camps go.
But the weeklong Alianza Sports Youth Soccer Experience is a bit different from most soccer camps.
The primary instructors are former professional players from Colombia, counting three World Cups between them and more than 2,000 per games. And although organizers advertised a price of $375, they said more than 80 percent of the nearly 150 participants who range in age from 10 to 22 did not have to pay to play.
Finally, before hitting the field, the players spent nearly an hour watching film and discussing the mental and emotional aspects of the game.
Alianza is the brainchild of Colombian political refugee David Certáin, founder of the popular Villa Myriam Coffee in Downtown Albuquerque and an unabashed soccer junkie.
He spent the last two years developing the program, recruiting coaches and searching for businesses that would provide scholarships for the players. The latter was particularly important, Certáin said.
“So many businesses contributed without asking for anything in return. That was so great because it’s about those guys out there,” he said with a nod toward the players.
Finding the right coaches was also paramount, Certáin said.
“If they started asking about money or anything like that, then I just moved on,” he said. “If they asked how they could help the kids, then I knew they were right for what I was looking for.”
Although the sessions are long at four hours in the morning for the younger players and four hours in the afternoon and evening for the older ones, Certáin said he felt it was important to immerse the players.
“We’re trying to develop the players’ skills, but also how they approach the game,” he said. “That it is OK to make a mistake. It is OK to miss. This game is so emotional and players need to know how to handle that.”
Goalkeeper coach Julián Viafara, who played professionally in both Colombia and Brazil, said he appreciated what the camp was trying to accomplish.
“I’m working in San Antonio, Texas,” he said through a translator. “I lived there for six years. The kids in the USA and Texas and New Mexico need other professional players who have played before to coach them. I think it is very good coming here and teaching.”
While going through the drills is important, Viafara said his biggest goal is trying to instill confidence because that is something that carries through beyond the soccer pitch.
“Confidence in yourself, it is very important,” he said. “The kids get confidence in their skills and if you have confidence, you can play for me. Confidence shows them they can do anything. The kids are at the growing stage and during the growing stage they can better themselves on the field and off the field.”
He does by “motivating them, making them feel, even if they make a mistake, there’s still room to learn from that mistake.”
That’s something that’s come across loud and clear to 22-year-old Hector Castañeda, who is a goalkeeper for the New Mexico Runners semi-professional indoor team.
“I guess you can say to learn a little more, learn different aspects of the game,” he said, in answer to why he wanted to attend the camp. “I’ve always played indoor soccer and futsal (an indoor form of soccer usually played on a small court with fewer players), so learning this helps me better my game.”
Sign up for our free Daily Sports Newsletter
Castañeda has been through plenty of camps, but none quite like this one.
“They’ve been teaching control of my body and my mind to be good on and off the field,” he said. “I guess what I can say they do different is give you the confidence to make a mistake and from that mistake, learn to better yourself. They talk a lot about the mental side of the game and how the professional prepares himself physically and mentally to be good for the games.”
For Certáin and Alianza this is just the first step in what he sees as a twice yearly or even quarterly camp that eventually will include some of the best players going to Colombia and train with professional teams there. Four teams have already agreed to participate, he said.
Also in the works is building two women’s teams to represent New Mexico in Colombian tournaments.
“We’re just going to see how far we can take it,” Certáin said.