World Cup soccer action is back. It started last week and ends July 15 and before it's over, some 3.4 billion people - roughly half the world's 7.6 billion population - are expected to tune in watch all 32 matches according to research company GlobalWebIndex.
Russia is the host country this year, so most games will take place very early California time. But the time hardly matters to fútbol aficionados like Juan Galindo. While he toils away at his day job upholstering furniture, he rattles off the starting line-ups of soccer teams he not only knew, but played professionally for 13 years in his native Mexico.
Teams such as Leon, Tecos and Toluca. Emigrating to the U.S. in 2001, he and his wife joined other family in Bakersfield. He went straight to work in the fields.
"When I told them that one day I was going to buy a house, some of them laughed at me," said Galindo. "They doubted I could do it by working in the fields."
Persistence paid off and in 2003 he scraped enough money together to buy a modest home and some adjacent land on Pacific Street in east Bakersfield. At the time the properties were in pretty bad shape. But his passion for the sport compelled him to clear the adjacent lot and construct an oasis in this part of town that appears to be forgotten by city leaders. Galindo constructed a soccer field for the neighborhood kids. He built it and they came. Unlike Kevin Costner, he didn't have to plow away any crops to build his dream. The field is about 150 feet long by 50 feet wide, and he maintains it, keeping it neatly spruced up. It has flags of different nations brightly painted around and it is in constant use. Galindo said he does not charge anyone who wants to play on his field; he does it for the love of the sport. Sometimes whole teams show up to play.
How much have you spent on building this field, I ask? He winces. "I don't even want to think about it. I could have probably bought a new car with the money I've put into it," he said and leaves it at that. He adds that he has the satisfaction of playing with his family. "It's been worth it," Galindo said.
During his days as a farmworker, he would spend break time kicking apples that fell to the ground as if they were soccer balls as he yearned to play the sport once again. Besides letting kids play, Galindo is also trainer. He uses his expertise to work with kids to hone their skills. Several he said, have gone on to play for college teams.
The U.S. is sitting out this World Cup, failing to qualify after losing to Trinidad and Tobago. (No, it's not a typo.) But the real shocker is that top soccer powerhouses such as Italy, Chile, Netherlands and Ghana also failed to make it. Teams from 32 countries will be performing before a world audience and national pride runs deep. Recall that at the World Cup games in 1994, the U.S. upset heavily favored Colombia by a score of 2-1, eliminating them from the tournament. But the winning goal was not scored by the Americans. It was kicked in by Andres Escobar who accidentally scored a goal against his own side. A few days later, Escobar was shot and killed as he exited a nightclub in Medellin. Yep, people can be deadly serious about this game.
Hard as I tried to convince my boss to send me to Russia to cover the games, it didn't work. But I did get the chance to personally meet the player considered the best ever to play the game - right here in Bakersfield. He is Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known simply as Pelé. The Brazilian living legend was here on Oct. 29, 1988, as part of the festivities to inaugurate Kern County Soccer Park. In 1975, he came to the U.S. to play his remaining years with the New York Cosmos.
While the U.S. is out of competition this time, there are plenty of other favorites including Mexico. Many in Kern County's immigrant community follow Mexico's national soccer team referred to as El Tri. The name comes from the Mexican flag - el tricolor - which is white, red and green. The team's uniform designs pay tribute to the flag, thus the nickname El Tri.
Just last week, we learned that the 2026 World Cup will be played in North America, shared among three host nations: Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. A NAFTA World Cup, you could say. Should one of those games be played in California, I know a soccer field in east Bakersfield that would be willing to host a game. And we could invite Pelé.