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It’s autumn in Arizona, which means the only tangible seasonal change is from football to soccer.
At Snedigar Sports Complex in Chandler, soccer team Bafana Bafana is making its playoff run in the Arizona Sports League men’s tournament.
In the semifinals, the team faces the Sand Dragon Football Club (SDFC), a team that ages each Bafana player by at least 15 years.
“Well we dated their mothers,” says 40-year-old SDFC defender Ed Ribeneira.
The game is over early as energetic Bafana Bafana players repeatedly drive through the SDFC defense, scoring four in the first half alone.
But the show has just begun.
With eight minutes left in the first half, 20-year-old left outside midfielder Enrique Collazo gets the ball with room to run.
It’s easy to miss him on the field at first. He’s not the loudest player, nor is he the biggest. He’s been quietly doling out passes to other players the entire half, making his runs, and filling in spots as other offensive players rush the box.
He begins to dance up the side of the field, weight shifting from foot to foot as he flicks the ball in and out, back and forth, a fake here, a juke there. Two defenders look like they’re standing still as he easily slides by, the ball a simple extension of his foot.
A defender gets too close, legs spread wide for balance. Collazo taps the ball through them and darts around him, the ball never leaving his foot for more than a second. He accelerates.
“Oooohooo,” exclaims his father Rudy. “Oh, excellent move, beautiful QuiQue.” He claps and moves his lawn chair to catch a few tendrils of shade.
“That is ‘El Tunnél’, the tunnel, when the ball goes through the legs like that,” he says.
Collazo has open field. There is nobody but the keeper in front of him, backed by the fluttering white net.
“Have one,” his teammates yell. “Have a shot, Enrique!”
Collazo taps the ball twice with the outside of his left foot as the keeper prepares for a shot from the right. But it sinks into the net from that left foot, toes pointed down, leg taut.
The Soccer Pedigree
It was clear that Collazo had a gift at a young age.
“I put the ball in front of him before he could even walk well and he started poking it with his left foot—he was trying to kick it,” Rudy said “I could see he had the blood, you know.”
Collazo likes to think soccer is indeed in his blood. Rudy played for the University of Monterrey in Mexico and Enrique’s older brother Rodolfo (Fito) was Grand Canyon University’s top defender and currently plays professionally for indoor football club Real Phoenix.
Collazo started playing recreationally within the city of Phoenix when he was 5. It seemed his blood was not merely coursing with a soccer pedigree, but with humility too.
“I remember this one team when I was about 5…they played in all yellow and I thought they were Brazil,” Collazo said. “I thought they were so good because of that even though we beat them.”
By the time he was 8, he was skilled enough to make Arizona’s top competitive team, Sereno, and thus began a strict training regimen.
“I actually tried out a year early, when I was seven,” he said. “They told me to come back the next year because I was just too small.”
He began travelling the Southwest for tournaments in shin guards that reached the very tops of his knees and disappeared under too-large shorts.
Sereno won the Nomads tournament in California the year he made the team. Collazo scored the game-tying goal that allowed the team to win in penalty kicks.
He hoisted a trophy almost as tall as he was and grinned the 8-year-old grin he never outgrew.
“I didn’t know the level I was competing at then,” Collazo said. “To me it was just another team.”
Twelve years later, Collazo is back to playing recreationally and another trophy is a glittering enticement on the sideline as Bafana Bafana warms up for its championship match against Celtic.
Collazo is an elongated version of his 5-year-old self. He’s made up of long legs, eyelashes, liquid brown eyes and a shock of black hair that ends in a ducktail at the nape of his neck.
“I wish he would cut it,” laments his mother, Rosalinda, as she watches him lope out to the field. His parents attended every game when he was playing competitively and still tote their lawn chairs out to the field to watch their youngest son.
But his hair is the least of Collazo’s worries. Celtic is a large, physical team that beat Bafana in the championship game in 2011. Bafana soundly defeated them in regular play this season, but it’s the opinion of many players and spectators that Celtic has brought in reinforcements.
The Celtic players know Collazo well. When he has the ball they often set two men on him, yelling “Watch the dance, boys,” in their Irish twang.
“He [Collazo] is a key player on Bafana,” Celtic captain and Arizona Sports League founder Adam Thelwell says. “I’m impressed with his touch and ability to control the ball.”
The teams take their positions—Celtic in green and white and chomping at the bit, and Bafana in their signature assembly of hodgepodge yellow jerseys, laughing and joking until the first whistle.
That’s the main difference in soccer between Collazo’s life now and his life before college: the seriousness.
He grew into a teenager on the soccer field. He trained three times a week and played every day, and had weekend tournaments more often than not. He saw perfectly manicured pitches all over the nation and collected trophy after trophy. He perfected his left-footed shot and worked hard on his right. He became graceful and fluid when maneuvering through defenders.
When he was 13 his parents caught wind of a high school outside their district, Horizon, which had previously won the state championship.
“It was far from our area,” Rosalinda said. “But we knew he should go there because of soccer.”
He made varsity as a sophomore and took a brief hiatus from Cisco, his club team at the time. He slowly began to gain recognition as a player, from all-region honorable mention as a sophomore to second-team all region as a junior, then finally first-team all region and a “player to watch” by his senior year.
And yet the senior named most valuable player and team captain by his coach, the 17-year-old who cemented his spot in Horizon history by scoring the third-most goals in one game, did not know how good he was.
“I guess I was good,” Collazo said. “I don’t think of myself as way above people.”
His future had always been determined for him by coaches and his club schedule in the past, but once the recruiters came calling his senior year, it was Collazo’s turn to make a decision.
With 10 minutes left in the Bafana-Celtic championship, neither team has scored and play borders on dangerous. Celtic and Bafana have attempted to force the action offensively but each team has gotten less than five shots on goal.
“We’re freakin’ out, I don’t know why,” says captain Sean Nonnemacher as he subs out for a breather.
Across the field, midfielder Michael McGowan has the ball. A Celtic defender barrels toward him and McGowan deftly pulls back the ball. Instinctively, the Celtic player drops into a slide tackle-but as he hits the ground he pulls his foot back in an attempt to spike McGowan’s knee with his cleat. The sideline howls in outrage (even Rudy paces and screams at the referee) but a yellow card is instead pulled three minutes later when Bafana forward Rafael Garcia is knocked to the ground.
The half ends. The score is still 0-0. Bafana jogs off, no longer smiling—until the players see the orange slices Nonnemacher’s mother has brought them. Collazo jogs down the sideline to get advice from Rudy as the team talks strategy and Celtic’s size.
“They’re not necessarily tall, but they’re pretty wide dudes,” McGowan says drily. “And they’re really strong. And I actually got laid out by one of them and it hurt…welcome to the NFL, right?”
They start the second half the same way as the first. Rejuvenated by the refreshments, the Bafana players again jog out laughing. It’s a subconscious tactical move that incenses Celtic.
Collazo is the only one not laughing. He was hit hard in the first half and showed a rare burst of anger as he yelled and threw his hands in the air. His eyebrows knit together and his jaw is set as he takes his place as left midfielder and the half begins.
“I was recruited by several small schools, but two big ones were Long Island University and Brown,” Collazo said, looking down and playing with the hem of his Arizona State Intramural Champion shirt.
“I didn’t think I was good enough. I know a lot of people go to out of state schools and they have these giant rosters and it’s really hard to be one of the starting 11.”
It’s a mystery to Collazo’s mother why he didn’t even approach the Brown recruiter when the man appeared at one of Collazo’s tournament games.
“I said ‘QuiQue, he’s here to see you, go talk to him!’” Rosalinda said. “But I don’t know why, he just didn’t go. I don’t think he thought he was good enough…we all know he was.”
Collazo thought about four more years of structure and seriousness, of competing for a spot and a scholarship and made a decision as quickly as pulling a move. He chose to leave competitive soccer behind and attend Arizona State University.
“I realized that once I decided not to play competitive soccer, that was it for me. I’d still be able to play for fun, but realizing it…well, it sucked at first. That’s 10 years I played competitively every day and then it just stopped,” he said.
He filled his schedule with soccer anyways—this time just for fun. He plays on seven teams with assorted members throughout the year including the Arizona State club team.
“I like Bafana the best. It’s just fun, that’s it. We just wake up and play, there’s no pressure,” he said. “I’ll keep playing for fun as long as I can keep walking.”
Collazo started college as an aerospace engineering major. The choice of major paralleled with his past in competitive soccer—it channeled his energy into a tunnel with a strict schedule and tough mental regimen.
Again, he instinctively chose to do what he loved for the sake of loving it. He switched into construction management with hopes of creating beautiful buildings in the future.
He pushed himself through and away from the confinement and restriction and pressure that comes with great talent-both mental and physical. It was as instinctive to Collazo as flicking a ball through a defender’s legs and darting past to open field and freedom.
And he has no regrets.
The game clock ticks away, and with each second the intensity and physicality of the game increases.
Suddenly, Bafana forward Garcia slips past his defender and speeds toward the goal. Collazo senses an opportunity and begins to sprint up the field, digging into the dry turf. There is a perceptible emotional shift from everyone present as the Celtic keeper screams for help and the crowded sideline rises to its feet.
A Celtic defender hits Garcia from the side, knocking him down and desperately thrusting his foot at the ball. The keeper moves from the net to fall on the ball, but the defender nicks it with the end of his cleat and it rolls out of his grasp directly into Collazo’s left foot.
He shifts his weight to his right, a small, calm smile on his face. There is no graceful dance this time. He simply taps the ball into the net and quietly celebrates as his teammates mob him and pat him on the back.
Bafana plays the remaining 15 minutes the best they can, just barely warding off the furious Celtic offense. McGowan gets clotheslined and hits the dirt. Penalty Celtic. Collazo barely manages to dance around a sliding tackle, the ball as fluid as his feet.
“Hold ‘em guys, come on Bafana!” Nonnemacher shouts breathlessly.
The final whistle blows, and new champions rush to the middle of the field, a laughing, high-fiving blob of yellow. Rosalinda and Rudy wear identical grins as they watch their QuiQue from their lawn chairs just as they have for 15 years.
Collazo grabs the shimmering trophy and he’s a kid again, playing for fun without restraint, through el tunnél to the open field.