For the last two decades or so, it has been characteristic of new political candidates in Belize City, when the UDP or the PUP first send them into a constituency, for them to start organizing football and basketball marathons and tournaments. Through these sports mechanisms, politicians can build energy which is favorable to their cause.
Out in Belmopan, John Saldivar has been using sports for politics for at least twenty years; basketball and football have served him well in his constituency. Saldivar has risen from rural anonymity to become the powerful Minister of National Security. This is his second term in Cabinet, and Saldivar has achieved national political recognition. John is a “big man.”
Most of you readers do not want to hear about sports, even though I have spent these four and a half decades trying to convince you that sports is more than sports: sports is sociology; sports is economics; sports is politics; and sports is life.
The Belizean naysayers with respect to sports always point out that relatively few people make a living off sports, and that it is much more important for our children to focus on school and education. It is very difficult to convince these naysayers, and they are amongst the most wealthy and powerful individuals in our community, that sports is so important that it has to be an integral part of that same school and education they are always emphasizing.
In Belize, there has always been a basic problem with sports, and it is that the children who play sports well quite often come from the Belizean masses: relatively few are children of the Belizean elite. But, it is the Belizean elite who have the money and the resources to support sports. Partly because of ethnicity and class, Belizean sports programs usually experience financial problems.
When the Belizean politicians are starting out their careers and their campaigns, to repeat, they know how to involve themselves with these sports programs and the Belizean youth in order to build political energy for themselves. The UDP has been in power now for more than six years. Of the ten seats in Belize City, eight are UDP.
Of the three seats in Belize Rural, two are UDP. I include Belize Rural, because many of the Belizeans who now live in Belize Rural are originally from Belize City and many of them still work in the old capital. It is incredible that the UDP government has allowed a state of affairs to develop where there is no basketball auditorium and no football stadium in the nation’s population center. The UDP demolished the basketball Civic last year, and they padlocked the gates of the football MCC Garden last month for what looks like a bogus refurbishment scheme.
The treatment of MCC has been an absolute disgrace under the UDP. As far as I can figure out, the Minister of Sports is supposed to be the Collet area representative, Hon. Patrick Faber, but when any sports complaint is made to him, he directs you to the Albert area representative, Hon. Herman Longsworth, who is supposed to be the Sports and Youth Minister of State, or something like that. Insofar as sports in Belize City is concerned, both these gentlemen have been failures. At least, this appears to be the opinion of the old capital, and, needless to say, I concur.
The Cabinet Minister who seems most interested in sports, because it was sports that largely made his uphill climb in Belmopan politics possible, is John Saldivar. Remember, when John first ran in politics in 1998 against the PUP’s Agripino Cawich, he was badly beaten. But he made a spectacular comeback, winning a bye-election in September of 2003 after Agripino passed away, this during a time when the PUP owned 25 of the 31 seats in the House of Representatives. Saldivar went on to win Belmopan in 2008 and 2012 by large margins. John Saldivar must be given his political respect.
Football in Belize had entered a period of disaster in the late 1990s when Dr. Bertie Chimilio took over the presidency of the Football Federation of Belize (FFB). Chimilio at the time was considered merely a protégé of the kingpin football bureaucrat, Delhart Courtenay. But Chimilio, a veterinarian trained in Guatemala City’s University of San Carlos, soon proved himself a formidable football politician – in Belize, in Central America and the Caribbean, and even at the level of FIFA, football’s international governing body. Chimilio forged links with Trinidad & Tobago’s Jack Warner, a government politician who was also the FIFA boss in Trinidad.
Warner was a key supporter of the world FIFA president, Sepp Blatter: Warner helped make Blatter’s FIFA election victories possible. Because of Jack Warner, Chimilio became untouchable in Belize.
Dr. Chimilio gave us Manuel Bilches. Under Bilches, Belize football selections were routinely taking six and seven. When Belizean outrage became too widespread, Chimilio brought in Costa Rica’s Leroy Sherrier-Lewis. Sherrier-Lewis was an instant and sensational success. Inexplicably, or perhaps quite explicably, Dr. Chimilio quickly sent him packing.
In football circles, it is said that John Saldivar, whose teams have won three consecutive national semi-pro football tournaments, is the man who succeeded in moving Bertie Chimilio when it appeared that no one else could. On his personal own and through his Ministry of National Security, John Saldivar now controls three teams in the semi-pro league: Belmopan Bandits, the present champions; Police, the previous champions; and the Belize Defence Force (BDF).
Most football lovers in Belize wanted Sherrier-Lewis back, so that was Ruperto Vicente’s first move when he replaced Dr. Chimilio as the head of the Football Federation of Belize two years ago. Sherrier-Lewis again delivered big time, taking the Belize selection to the Gold Cup in the United States last year for the first time ever. Belize football politics, in the person of the now disgraced Rawel Pelayo, immediately intruded, and Sherrier-Lewis, the most successful national head coach in Belizean football since we entered FIFA, was driven out again.
Well, enter Big John: it was John Saldivar who brought back Sherrier-Lewis last year to coach his Belmopan Bandits. Bingo, championship! The story now is that they ran Sherrier-Lewis again soon after he won that championship, because he insisted on certain moves to prepare the Bandits to meet the champions of Mexico and Salvador next month.
In Salvador today, the Belize U-20 national selection is being devastated in a U-20 World Cup qualifying tournament. Who is going to answer Belizeans’ questions about the ongoing debacle? Is it Faber? Hardly. Is it Longsworth? Unlikely. How about Big John?
An NFL Hall of Fame coach, Bill Parcells, famously said, “You are what your record is.” What this means is that when it comes to sports, no one wants to hear if your throat is itching you or if your knee hurts. It’s like war. What they want for you to do is to get the job done. John Saldivar’s first concern is Belmopan success in sports, because that is his constituency, and he is – first, foremost, and always, a politician. Thing is, the rest of us don’t care diddly about Belmopan: our concern is Belize, Central American nation-state in the heart of the Caribbean Basin.
Incidentally, John Saldivar and I have “old beefs” going back to 1994, 1996, and 1998. Perhaps I have gotten a bit personal. The buck, of course, stops on P.M. Barrow’s desk. It appears that the Maximum Leader was more interested in the Mexican selection’s World Cup performance than in Belizean sports. Just saying. Someone has to start answering some questions.