A good deal more interesting than anything happening on the field, Galaxy midfielder Mauricio Cienfuegos made a brief but gripping contribution to The Football Confederation's Gold Cup qualification tournament Friday.
Morning: Cienfuegos holds a news conference in a Culver City hotel, breaking down several times as he reads passionately from a 12-page handwritten statement blasting the El Salvador soccer federation for greed, deceit and incompetence and seemingly burning all bridges back to the national team he walked away from Wednesday.
Evening: Cienfuegos is not only in uniform for El Salvador's second round-robin match against Canada, but in the starting lineup and wearing the captain's armband as well.
Thirty-eight minutes later: Cienfuegos is shown the red card by Mexican referee Armando Archundia for a high kick during a challenge on Canadian midfielder Carl Fletcher.
Fifty-two minutes after that, El Salvador walks off the Coliseum field in defeat, having been beaten by a 60th-minute goal by Fletcher, 2-1, before a crowd of 6,507. With the defeat, El Salvador (0-1-1), the tournament favorite, finds itself tied for last place with Cuba, a 1-0 loser to Haiti in the first match of Friday's doubleheader.
Sunday, Canada (1-0-1) and Haiti (1-0-1) will play for first place at 1 p.m., followed by El Salvador-Cuba at 3 p.m. The top two finishers qualify for the 2000 Gold Cup, to be held next February in Los Angeles, San Diego and Miami.
Cienfuegos' on-again, off-again comeback with El Salvador's national soccer team has eclipsed any and all of the on-field action during this week's tournament. Cienfuegos, who declared his retirement from the national team in 1998, announced he was returning to the side this week, only to walk out of training camp Wednesday and fail to show for El Salvador's opener against Haiti.
Thursday, Galaxy officials brokered a meeting between Cienfuegos and El Salvador federation President Juan Torres, resulting in Cienfuegos agreeing to return to the team hotel and rejoin the squad that night.
Stung by criticism within the Salvadoran community for his walkout, Cienfuegos asked the Galaxy staff to arrange a Friday morning news conference as an opportunity for Cienfuegos to tell his side. This he did by way of his statement, keeping Cienfuegos at his hotel room desk until 5 a.m.
With his voice quaking, and occasionally cracking, Cienfuegos read aloud for 20 minutes, with several of his El Salvador teammates in the audience, applauding Cienfuegos at the end of his rambling, impassioned monologue.
"My cup has been teetering, and it finally spilled," Cienfuegos said through a translator. "Many people have said that I sold out my country, that I have forgotten where I am from. That I am a mercenary, that I committed treason, that I backstabbed my country. But you forget that I have 13 years of professional soccer in--and 12 have been spent defending the El Salvador jersey."
Cienfuegos railed against the federation for treating the players like chattel "instead of human beings. . . . They don't care if a player is unable to cash a check because it bounced. They don't care about the players at all.
"I say: That's over. All of that's over."
According to sources, Cienfuegos left practice Wednesday after being promised a meeting with Torres and not receiving one. Cienfuegos, who retired from the national team because he was fed up with the federation's "disorganization," saw this as just another example.
Torres, however, claimed he could not meet with Cienfuegos until Thursday because his daughter was ill and had been hospitalized. Thursday's meeting was enough appeasement for Cienfuegos to rejoin the team, but he still felt the need to make a public statement before stepping back on the field.
As comebacks go, Cienfuegos' was far from triumphant. Canada was already ahead, 1-0, on a 10th-minute goal by Paul Stateri, when Cienfuegos went in high on Fletcher, drawing a red-card ejection in the 38th minute.
Playing shorthanded the rest of the way, El Salvador tied the score on a 46th-minute penalty kick by Raul Diaz Arce, before Fletcher won it for Canada with a crisp shot just inside the 18-yard line past goalkeeper Ivan Munoz.