José Vidal Hernández, visionary of Salvadoran soccer, dies at age 57

José Vidal Hernández, visionary of Salvadoran soccer, dies at age 57

Jose Vidal Hernández (center) next to El Salvador’s vicepresident Óscar Ortiz, right.

Text: Nelson Rauda Zablah

Translation: Tatiana Rauda Zablah

It was the most transcendent meeting of his life. Óscar Ortiz was internally debating whether to accept the candidacy for the vice presidency of El Salvador. Ortiz was, in 2012, the star mayor of FMLN (left party) in Santa Tecla, and had to decide whether to run for vice president in 2014.

Ortiz sought a discreet place. He went to an office located on the opposite side of Plaza de la Cultura, in Santa Tecla, on Paseo El Carmen, the flagship project of Ortiz’s management.

That office held custom designed wooden furniture, symbols of the United States — also in wood, dozens of soccer trophies, framed sport newspaper clippings, family photos, legal documents, and a painting of Jesus. All are brushstrokes of the life of the man who owned that office, the man who deserved the mayor’s trust for that meeting. That man was Vidal Hernández.

“I told Vidal: Look, Salvador is coming and he said ‘yes, there’s no problem,’” Ortiz tells. That Salvador is Salvador Sánchez Cerén. Together with Ortiz, formed the tandem that won the presidential elections for the 2014–2019 period. Maybe he did not know it at that time, but Vidal Hernández’s office became the presidential office.

José Vidal Hernández (Ilobasco, September 12, 1961) died at 3:50, the morning of November 25, 2018. For two years he fought a battle against cancer that affected his liver, but never his vitality. As a lawyer, he was the owner of a clever mind for negotiations, and a gift of people who make many describe him as a peacemaker.

He was also a successful and esteemed sports director. These characteristics can only be properly weighed if the context of El Salvador is taken into account in 2018: a country in which the national soccer team has consistently failed since 1982, and in which the leaders of the soccer federation are almost as despised as politicians. But not Hernández. He was the exception.

His addiction to soccer (the word passion falls short) was the thread that allowed him to meet many of the country’s great political actors. For example, Hernandez was president of ADEPAFUT (an amateur league for people 33 and older) when he met Ortiz, at the emblematic Cafetalón soccer fields. A sincere friendship was born that later would unite them in the Santa Tecla Soccer Club, the most important project in Hernández’s life, and his most recognizable legacy. Soccer, a great simulator of social equality, was also the vehicle in which the fame that Hernandez already had in Santa Tecla expanded nationally, enabling his work to reach the ears of Salvadorans of all strata.

In the most intimate of his circles he was a husband and a father. Hernandez’s relationship with his family is ineffable. His wife, Rina Peña de Hernández, is a teacher who Jose met when they were neighbors in Santa Tecla. They married in 1989. Hernandez referred to her as “her angel on earth.” Together they raised two children: Michelle Hernández, a 29-year-old lawyer, the apple of Hernández’s eyes, and José Vidal Hernández, a 22-year-old musician and graphic design student, “his spitting image.”

Hernandez loved his extended family. His seven brothers-in-law became his brothers who suffer the loss such as that of a brother. Even her pet, a little dog named Sofia, moaned audibly all day Sunday.

A leader who started as a laborer.

It was not difficult for him to empathize with the most disadvantaged people. He was one. His mother died when he was 1 year and a half, and he met his biological father when he was 19 years old. He was raised by his grandmother, his beloved Mama Lola, who along with Doña Reina, his aunt, were the matriarchy who directed him.

At age six he moved in with his grandparents to the city of Santa Tecla, but then moved to live in a rural community called “Victoria” within the same region, because life in the city was very expensive. He worked from the age of six, an undesirable situation but of which Hernandez was proud.

He worked in furniture stores such as Olins, Molina and Kapricho. In this last company he led a group of furniture painters. It was in the same company where he met Hugo Barrera, owner of the Diana factory and one of the founders of the Arena political party (right), and his wife Carmen Elena. “From a young age he was a visionary with an immense desire to excel, very dedicated in every task he undertook,” says Mr. Barrera. Ms. Barrera remembered that Hernández asked her for a chance and he worked for them at the same time he studied through high school and college. The connection with Mr. Barrera would prove to be key many years later in Hernandez’s life.

He was a natural leader, according to Andrés Amaya, former head of the Anti-corruption office in the Attorney General’s office. Amaya met Vidal Hernández in 1978, when they were both classmates in the School of Commerce and Administration (ECOA). Hernández was president of his class for the four years he was at ECOA. He also directed soccer teams at the time. “He managed to have the entire class wearing the same suit for our graduation ceremony, a very elegant gray suit. I still remember it”, says Amaya. Collecting clothes (hats, suits, ties, shoes, sports uniforms) became one of his great hobbies.

Amaya fondly recalls how Hernandez always “planned the party, but would never drink alcohol”. But his peers all wanted to be around him. From those years he started with another of his addictions: Coca-Cola, a treat that he kept in his adult life even when he suffered from diabetes.

After high school, he studied law at the University of El Salvador, although he obtained his degree at the Universidad Salvadoreña (USAL). Since the mid-80s, he developed his litigation career, mainly in the city of Santa Tecla. Douglas Meléndez, current attorney general, remembers him from those years as a formidable adversary, with whom he was able to argue a whole morning before going out together to drink a Coke and chat as friends after the hearings.

As a litigant in courts, he met his “compadre”, Nelson Rauda Rodas, who during most of the 90’s was judge in Santa Tecla. Again, it was the love of sports that cemented a friendship that also became a business partnership and, later, created a family bond. “He met another crazy soccer fan,” Andrés Amaya tells of the pair. Together they started the Courts Fútbol Club, a team full of employees of the court and the chamber, they played tournaments at the Cafetalón, the British School field and the Santa Cecilia school field.

Chiefs of police, prosecutors, judges, deputies, and magistrates became part of their team,. The congressman Guillermo Gallegos played with him as defender, the former head of the Anti-Narcotics Police Division, Godofredo Miranda, as forward, former judges of the Supreme Court Sidney Blanco and Florentín Meléndez played too: Blanco as a wing back and Meléndez as a keeper. Judge Levis Orellana also played goal. Many nationally well- known former soccer players came to play for Hernandez’s team such as Jorge “Magico” González (El Salvador’s greatest player ever and member of Soccer’s Hall of Fame), Noberto “Pájaro” Huezo, Carlos Rivera, Kin Canales, Leonel Cárcamo, Geovany Trigueros, Marlon Menjívar, Óscar Ulloa, and foreigners like Julio César Chávez, Nidelson Silva de Mello “Nenei”, Toninho Dos Santos, Raul Toro, Osvaldo “El Pichi” Escudero for the amateur teams of Hernández.

“Compadre” Rauda fondly recalls when Hernandez initially joined the Courts team. “It was under the palo de hule at the Cafetalón. I introduced him to the team and he set his conditions. He said he was not used to playing like that, and I’m talking about the state of the field, “all while he juggled a ball with his feet. “He accepted to play with losers,” Rauda laughs.

“I met him as a laborer, as a student and as a professional. I greatly admired him. He was generous and transparent. He helped his family, his wife- a wonderful woman — and tried to lighten everyone’s spirits, “says the compadre. “He gave his life to “Diosito”, as he used to refer to God, and God’s mercy was evident,” he adds.

From El Cafetalón to the world

Hernandez’s career as a sports director began at El Cafetalón, calling his friends from the F.C. Tribunals, first, and Tecleños Lawyers, later, to show up for the matches. He became the leader of Papi Fútbol and continued playing even after multiple operations on his knees.

His friendship with vicepresident Ortiz started then. In 2007, alongside another group of businessmen and leaders, they established the Santa Tecla Fútbol Club. They set their 5 year goal to take the team into the First Division. They achieved it after four and a half years. 10 years after Santa Tecla was established, in 2017, they were already three-time national champions. Hernandez was president of Santa Tecla until he passed the baton to Guillermo Figueroa.

“He always saw Santa Tecla as a city project, since Óscar invited him to join,” says Roberto d’Aubuisson, mayor of Santa Tecla and son of the founder of Arena. That’s how Santa Tecla’s team survived the departure of Ortiz from the mayor’s office. “Vidal was a lover of Santa Tecla. If it had been seen as a political project, this would have ended. This is due to Vidal, nobody else”, says the mayor emphatically. The municipal council of d’Aubuisson named Hernandez as “noble friend of Santa Tecla” on May 25, 2017. It is the highest title the city recognizes someone who was not born there.

Santa Tecla was also the first El Salvador Cup champion, a tournament Hernandez launched when he became president of the Professional First Division. The Cup places under competition the teams of the three professional soccer divisions. Hernandez wanted people who live in remote villages to experience soccer and watch their favorite players compete on their local fields.

The closeness with Ortiz also aroused misconceptions about Hernández’s political affiliation. El Salvador is a highly polarized society, especially in terms of political parties. Many people believed him a man of the left because of that partnership with Ortiz, a former guerrilla. Fito Salume, a millionaire businessman and founder of a political party that is part of the coalition led by Arena for the 2019 presidential elections, did not trust Hernández for that reason, believing he was linked to the left. Ironically, Hernández defined himself as a man of the right (closer to what a republican would be in the U.S.)

Salume, owner of Alianza soccer team, connected with Vidal in the First Division of soccer. Hernandez himself said that Salume’s attitude changed toward him when he realized that, in his youth, Hernández had worked with Hugo Barrera, the Arena man.

He was like that. “Vidal had breakfast with the FMLN (guerrilla), had lunch with Arena (extreme right), and had dinner with those of Gana (the hinge party)”, jokes his compadre Rauda.

Hernández could have ran for mayor. He had offers from all political parties, at different times. He consulted with his family and faced a split vote: his daughter Michelle was enthusiastic about the idea, but her son Vidal and his wife Rina were not convinced. “I always talked with him at night in his room. I thought there was too much pressure and that he was too tired and busy,” says Vidalito, as he is known in the family. Hernández prioritized his family and decided not to run.

The president who was not

“The only thing missing was to get to Fesfut (El Salvador Soccer Federation) to correct the course of Salvadoran soccer. The destiny of soccer in this country would have been another,” says Kiko Henríquez, a former player, and Santa Tecla former coach. For a moment, it seemed that Hernandez was destined to be president of the Federation. But it was not fulfilled due to an episode that hurt him a lot: his disqualification as a sports leader.

To summarize a long and complicated story, in August 2016, Santa Tecla signed two contracts to lend to the Colombian player Luis Hinestroza, one with Chalatenango and then one with Metapán. Hernández explained that his good faith was surprised: the Chalatenango executives and the player omitted to tell him that they already had a contract and, according to Hernández’s version, they obtained the first permit without their authorization. The Disciplinary Committee of the Fesfut sanctioned him with disqualifying him for six months from any sport activity. 10 of the 12 First Division teams threatened to not lend their players to the National Soccer Team if the FESFUT did not revoke the sanction.

“I think the situation was lent or used to keep me away from soccer, because it was a simple matter, but there was an interest to follow it up and turn it into what we know today,” said Hernandez when interviewed by the “Daily Colatino”, two months after the sanction . “Someone told me that I wanted to steal prominence (to the FESFUT) and that is absurd. (…) I leave it to their conscience for the interpretation they have had which I still do not comprehend the reason of such sanction”, said Hernandez.

How would have Hernández performed as president of Fesfut? It is impossible to say with precision, but in Santa Tecla he proved to be a shrewd leader, and someone with ideas that are revolutionary for Salvadoran soccer, although they have already worked in the rest of the world.

“He was a person ahead of his ideas, with a lot of momentum, always concerned about the work with the youth divisions,” says Uruguayan player Sebastián Abreu, a world soccer legend, Copa América champion with his country and holder of the world record with the most career clubs (26). “(Vidal) had a need not only for Santa Tecla to grow, but also Salvadoran football could have an important place in CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Soccer Association, the same where the U.S. plays) he says. Abreu played in Santa Tecla in 2016 and won the club’s second title. In the final game, scored two goals against Alianza, Santa Tecla won 3–2 in a splendid match.

That goal, says Vidalito, was one of three goals that he saw Hernández celebrate in his entire life. He was passionate but he kept it to himself during the games. The other two were a goal against University of El Salvador’s team, because a fan had been winding him up the whole game. The other one was Vidalito’s first goal in a kid’s team: a perfect free kick that curled above a barrier and slotted in the upper corner of the net.

Hernandez was as proud of the championship titles of “la Reserva” (the Academy, Under-21 category) team as of the first division. “We were champions in “la Reserva”, it would have been nice to be a champion in all three categories: first division, “la reserva” and under-17. This speaks well of the project, creates credibility and confidence because we are sowing a seed that is different,” he said on television , after winning the third championship in May 2017.

Hernández founded the Santa Tecla soccer academy. The day of his passing, Santa Tecla tied with Jocoro with a team full of academy players.

Abreu tells another story that speaks of Hernández’s strength of character. After celebrating the title, Hernandez confessed to the hero of the final that he had been one of the main opponents of his contract, due to the economic effort he represented for the club. “Just as he is an honest and a straight forward person, he can recognize when he is wrong. It is uncommon, I would say that it is very difficult to find executives who, in the face of success, open themselves up in that way, “says Abreu. “You value that kind of gesture because the environment surrounding soccer is almost all full of hypocrisy, and a lot of falsehood. He always had that very direct way about him and those are the people who make the difference “, he finishes.

Hernández was also a clever negotiator. He told me that to hire one of his foreign players, he call him to meet at a coffee shop in Santa Tecla. The soccer player came with a very high salary claim. Before leaving his house, he asked Vidalito to call him 10 minutes later. Already seated with the player, Hernandez answered the telephone, with a poker face.

— “Yes Yes. Thank you. Perfect,” he muttered, before hanging up.

He told the soccer player that he had just spoken to the representative of an African international soccer player who played in his same position and if he did not accept what was offered, he already had someone else in line. The soccer player, then, gave in to Hernandez’s offer. A magician’s trick revealed only because he will no longer find it useful.

The death of Hernandez was one of those rare moments when most of journalists found unanimity. It was national news. Minutes of silence were kept in Santa Tecla, Metapán, San Francisco Gotera, San Miguel, San Vicente, and Usulután. The KL and the Monumental, the radio stations that broadcast soccer in El Salvador, talked about his passing all day. The narrators of Channel 4 gave their condolences before the transmission began and a TCS (national tv channel) team made a note from the wake. The Spanish sports newspaper “As” published a note in its edition for the United States.

Eugenio Calderón, a very harsh and controversial sports commentator, he spoke of Vidal: “a man who always showed us the human and professional quality of a true sports leader”. Roberto Campos, executive of Metapán, said “today is not a Santa Tecla Soccer Club’s loss alone, is a loss for soccer, we all lost a true idealist, a warrior of our sport”. Ernesto Espinoza, a journalist from Megavisión, wrote: “a man who fought so that our soccer would take a step forward, a man of dialogue and not conflict”. Joel Cañas, narrator of channel 4 (national tv), tweeted: “If there was someone who always looked for harmony, peace, cohesion and union it was him, our soccer loses one of the few good ones, a slight setback in the effort of unity among the league”. Rómulo Guzmán, is a journalist of “Culebrita Macheteada”, who collaborated in some projects for Santa Tecla. “He taught me two things, love of soccer and love for family. I want this for my family and I want this for Santa Tecla,” said Guzmán.

The last game that Hernandez watched was Santa Tecla 3- 0 Firpo on November 22. He rested in a hammock, but listened to the television narrative. Every time he heard the goal cry, he would ask, “Who scored?” Vidalito, his son, says that the day before he died, sitting on a chair, he got him a soccer ball and kicked it a couple of times.

“We want to have the Las Delicias (Santa Tecla’s soccer stadium) facilities overcrowded. That’s the dream, “said Hernández on Órbita TV, after winning the third title. He saw it a few times, but especially in the famous victory against the Seattle Sounders, on February 22, 2018, in the CONCACAF’s champions league.

Therefore, if you miss him and want to honor him, don’t get flowers. Go to the stadium. The Santa Tecla FC plays on Saturday.