When Marcelo Balboa was growing up in Cerritos, he and older brother Claudio would pretend to be famous soccer stars playing in important games all over the world.
"We used to take penalty kicks against each other," he recalled recently. "One guy would be the goalie and the other guy would kick the ball. Then we would switch off."
Balboa doesn't have to pretend to be an international soccer player anymore. The 21-year-old Latino is a defender on the U.S. national soccer squad that is trying to qualify for the 1990 World Cup finals in Italy.
For him, it's the realization of a dream that first popped into his mind while at Cerritos High, where he scored more than 100 goals in four years--the first year as a defender, the next three as a forward--and led the Dons to four league championships.
He made the all-California Interscholastic Federation teams in his junior and senior years, and the San Gabriel Valley League first team all four years. In 1985, he was the league's most valuable player.
Someone who thought Balboa could make it was Bob Flores, the Cerritos coach: "He was definitely a quality player from the beginning. He always had the physical capability. It was just a matter of the opportunity coming along."
Balboa's first big break came in 1985. Balboa was chosen for the U.S. under-20 national team and made his international debut in a series against Canada. In 1987, he captained the United States at the under-20 World Championships.
He later enrolled at El Camino College in Torrance and transferred to San Diego State University as a criminal law major. As a junior last year on the soccer field, he sparked the Aztec defense that registered a school-record 14 shutouts in 22 matches. He was also catching the attention of the full U.S. team's brass. His field of dreams was a step away.
"He had an offer to play professionally in Mexico," said his father Luis, a machinist at a San Pedro tuna plant, "but he didn't want to go. He wanted to play for his national team. It made me proud."
It was Luis, an Argentina-born midfielder with the Chicago Mustangs of the old North American Soccer League and now a coach in the Greater Los Angeles Soccer League, who first got his sons playing at an early age in AYSO, the American Youth Soccer Organization.
Now, Marcelo Balboa wants to be part of the generation that regains some respectability for the United States in international soccer.
"We are already in (the Cup finals) automatically in '94 as the hosts," he said. "We want to show people that we can play soccer, and by qualifying for '90, we'll prove that we belong."