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Author to recount his Mexican soccer odyssey

In 2009, the writer Robert Andrew Powell was planning to move to Miami and he decided he’d better improve his Spanish skills. He set off to spend a month in Puebla, Mexico, to immerse himself in the language.

Part of his regimen included reading Mexican newspapers, all of which seemed to feature daily stories about the city of Ciudad Juarez, a border town across from El Paso, Texas, that was wracked by violence from drug cartels.

“The articles on Juarez were just insane sounding,” Powell said. “Every day there would be 10 more people killed. It just sounded like the craziest place in the world.”

At the time, Powell also happened to be reading a Joan Didion story, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” which the author wrote about San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in the late 1960s.

“Didion wrote that she went there because no place seemed more relevant. Her plan when she got to San Francisco was just to hang out. I got overcome with feeling that if she were young” when Powell was in Mexico, “the place where she would be hanging out at that time would be Ciudad Juarez.”

Powell moved to the city known by the locals as Juarez and became captivated by the people and the soccer team they followed so fervently.

The result was Powell’s book, “This Love is Not for Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juarez,” published by Bloomsbury and named by Library Journal to its list of Top 10 sports books of 2012.

Powell will be in Buffalo on Wednesday to do a reading from the book, along with a Q&A, at a program at Resurgence Brewing Company, 1250 Niagara St. It’s part of an author series called Buffalo, Books & Beer. The program starts at 7 p.m. and admission is $5. Also speaking will be Western New York native Jeff Klein, a veteran New York Times sports reporter who will talk about his book “Messier.”

Powell had neither a book deal nor an agent when he landed in Juarez. But he sensed the potential for some good stories to come out of there.

“I found the city fascinating. Then I heard about the soccer team and I heard they had an American on the team, and that just kind of made my decision to stay.”

The American was Marco Vidal, who became a central figure to “This Love is Not for Cowards,” the way that halfback Boobie Miles stood out in Buzz Bissinger’s “Friday Night Lights.”

Vidal was raised in Dallas by Mexican-born parents. His short stature meant his soccer talents were often underrated. But Vidal, who always wanted to play in his parents’ homeland, worked his way up to a roster spot with the Ciudad Juarez Indios, the city’s pro team.

He became a companion and confidant of Powell’s as the author learned his way around the city, where the hard-working people took respite in cheering for their team, while putting the violence around them out of their minds.

Soon after Powell first arrived in Juarez, a coach from the Indios’ organization, Pedro Picasso, was murdered along with his uncle in the uncle’s cell-phone shop. Picasso’s uncle had refused to pay extortion money to one of the cartels.

“I was hyper scared when I got there,” Powell said this week in a phone interview. “But that’s part of what I wanted to confront because everything I had read about Juarez made it sound like this cartoonish, unbelievable hell. Which in ways it justifiably was.”

When he learned of Picasso’s murder, “I almost had a heart attack. I had convinced myself, well it can’t be that bad. It’s all these normal people playing this normal sport.

“But there was a soccer team playing in the major leagues,” the Primera Division. “They were named the Indios, which reminded me of the Cleveland Indians. They had an American living there. All of the players, including the American, were living there by choice. There had to be more to the city than just this baroque killing. That helped me get over my fear.”

It had been a near-miracle for the Indios to qualify for the Primera Division, Mexico’s second tier of pro soccer, which they had done after the 2007-08 season. But the team struggled thereafter, going on a losing streak that would cause the team to slide out of the Primera and eventually to fold.

“They had already played two seasons” in the Primera “when I got there and they had done horribly,” Powell said. “So they had one last season, the spring season, and if they didn’t get their act together they were going to get demoted. … Initially I was hoping for the Disney story. But it turned out to be a great metaphor for the city. Because at the time the city was doing so terrible, and yet there were so many good people who were just working every day and trying to live as best they can. And that’s what the Indios players were. … I found it inspiring how hard they worked. And they kept working, even when it looked bleak.

“They were great for the city and the city loved them, even when they lost.”

As much as Powell came to admire the Indios and the fans who followed them, eventually the city’s violence became too much.

One night, as Powell was sitting in a bar watching a soccer game on TV, a car bomb exploded two blocks away.

“It was a narco-terrorist car bomb,” he said. “They had kidnapped a man, stabbed him, dressed him up as a police officer and dumped him in the street, which got everyone around thinking that a police officer had been stabbed. And then when the police and the paramedics showed up they blew up this car bomb to kill the cops and the paramedics.

“It was horrific. And yet it was also remarkable how by that point how little that fazed me. Or anyone. I walked down to the explosion site and there was one teenage couple holding hands. There were a couple of kids riding around on their bikes because the road was closed. And everyone was kind of excited because the news was there. And the next day, I ran a 10k race and we ran right on that street.

“It was just the way in Juarez. Every day you had to wake up and put the day before behind you. Even something this tremendously horrific.”

A friend told Powell, “Look, we have to be here but you don’t. For you to stay here is really insane.”

He packed his bags and made his way back to Miami. Powell wrote the book, found an agent and was on his way.

He says that following the Juarez Indios was “the best professional idea I ever had.”

He thinks back to one day in Juarez in particular.

“I was at this party with El Kartel,” the Indios’ cheering section, “after a game, and just was jazzed because I felt like I was the exact right guy in the right place for the right reason at the right time and all that had happened in my life had led me to that.

“And if I’d had a job at the New York Times I wouldn’t have done that. If I had kids I wouldn’t have done that. And I was just grateful that it happened.”

email: gconnors@buffnews.com