Back when Frank Molina was a little boy with big dreams, he didn't ache to dribble toward the hoop like Michael Jordan or drive the long ball like any of those so-called Boys of Summer.
He wanted to kick the ball just like his hero, the former soccer great, Pele. That was The Dream. Nothing less would suffice.
The scene was a back-street barrio in his home country of El Salvador, a dusty field ringed by barbed wire--where young boys would charge the grounds after scoring a goal, shouting, "I'm Pele! I'm Pele!"
Now, Molina, a player-coach for the student soccer team at Evans Community Adult School, might get to shake hands with some of soccer's newest idols. No, his team wasn't unexpectedly invited to compete in the World Cup. He'll be a volunteer at SoccerFest, a spinoff event to be held July 8-17 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
Molina sat spellbound last week in the Downtown school's library as Marie Wegerle, a SoccerFest volunteer coordinator, held up a shirt and cap commemorating what Molina considers to be simply the biggest sporting event on the planet. Wegerle was explaining to a rapt group of foreign-born students the fringe benefits of volunteering.
Several international players will attend SoccerFest, a sports fair that will allow kids to perform in such events as demonstrations and impromptu matches. The players will sign autographs for volunteers and the general public alike. Even the World Cup trophy will be on hand.
While World Cup organizers have filled countless volunteer spots for the much-anticipated games--being held at nine cities nationwide, including the Rose Bowl in Pasadena--there's still a chance to get involved with soccer-mania in Los Angeles.
SoccerFest organizers need more than 1,500 volunteers to work as translators, run errands, explain the sport of soccer, staff booths, run overhead projectors and give directions.
No major sports event--not a Superbowl, Master's golf tournament or NBA final--can be staged without the work of volunteers. With an international sports spectacle such as the 1994 World Cup, there's a new wrinkle in the search for volunteers: organizers need people who speak English and at least one other language.
In recent weeks, SoccerFest organizers have waged a billboard campaign and run ads in Spanish-language newspapers such as La Opinion. Across the street from the Evans school, a brightly colored billboard in Spanish advertised the event to passing motorists and students.
"We went to every organization we could think of with people who might want to help," said Cynthia Burr-Larson, a volunteer coordinator for SoccerFest. "That meant high schools, local universities, churches--any place where groups of people might have some time on their hands."
At the Evans school, application forms went as fast as Pele could score a goal off a penalty kick.
"Sure, I'm going to volunteer," said Molina, 23. "My hero is (Diego Armando) Maradona. He plays for Argentina. I don't know if he'll be there at SoccerFest. But I'll be looking for him."
Wegerle dangled dreams in front of these soccer fans-turned-students.
"All of these students have just the qualities we want," said Wegerle, who has spoken to numerous classes at Evans as well as at high schools with large populations of Spanish-speakers.
"They come from all over the world and can speak so many languages. And since they're just so crazy about soccer, they can bring that excitement to those who attend the event."
While watching a soccer videotape showing players from different countries, two South Korean students squealed when they spotted their country's flag. "I don't know how many Americans would be so excited to see their flag," Wegerle said.
"For a lot of these people, soccer represents a pride of country and homeland," she added. "It's that passion that drives the World Cup."
Burr-Larson, who has made several appeals on local television, said operators have taken hundreds of calls from interested soccer fans from all walks of life who speak almost every language.
Applicants include a man who advertised his "chameleon-like abilities to greet people in many languages and customs" and his "specialty in rap music."
Or consider the 10- and 11-year-old Russian soccer players who speak fluent Russian and Hungarian. Or the doctors and lawyers, or the professional masseuse who offered her services free of charge.
At the Evans school library, Vietnamese immigrant Thanh Tieu sat on a table, wearing a soccer hat autographed by the entire U.S. team. Nearby, a poster advertising the slogan "Read" showed a young student sitting with his books in the grass, cradling a soccer ball with his legs.
"In my country, we play soccer more than basketball," the 25-year-old student said. "It's an event when people play soccer. That's why I am here."
For weeks, those in English as a Second Language classes at the 10,000-student school have wondered why Americans aren't as excited about the World Cup as the rest of the world.