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Mexico's Rising Star

Team's emergence as a power in women's soccer can be traced to forward Dominguez

June 27, 2004|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

One afternoon in early March, Maribel Dominguez went home, back to the ramshackle, poverty-stricken neighborhood of Chalco on the outskirts of Mexico City.

Back, also, to the cheers and horns and drums and good wishes of scores of local residents, family, friends and strangers, all gathered to greet the street urchin-turned superstar.

One hand-lettered banner said it all:

"Felicidades, Maribel."

Congratulations, indeed.

Outside soccer circles, Maribel Dominguez is not a well recognized name north of the Rio Grande, but she is every bit the heroine to Mexican youngsters that Mia Hamm is to their American counterparts.

It was Dominguez, more than anyone else, who in March propelled unfashionable and unfavored Mexico to a place in the women's soccer tournament of the 2004 Olympic Games.

She scored twice against Canada in the do-or-die semifinal qualifying match in San Jose, Costa Rica, and her teammates then made the goals stand up for a historic 2-1 victory that earned them the trip to Athens.

So there were thousands of fans at Mexico City's airport when the team returned, and dozens of reporters, all clamoring for Dominguez.

Then when she got back to the dusty streets of Chalco, she got the biggest surprise.

"I didn't expect that," she said of the welcome.

Flash back to Chalco in the early 1980s. A small girl, one of nine children, is standing alongside a dirt field, watching, fascinated, as one of her older brothers and his friends play soccer day and night.

"From 7 a.m., I was up watching them," she said. "Later on, my youngest brother had nobody to play soccer with, everybody was too old. I was the closest one. So I started playing with him, many, many hours.

"All of my brothers would help: 'This is how you shoot. This is how you do it.' I would practice with them or by myself against the wall.

"Because of the love I had, when I was hitting the ball against the wall I would imagine I was a professional player."

Later, she played on a local boys' team because there were no girls' teams.

"At first, they didn't like me playing at all because I was better than some of the boys," Dominguez said. "But some of the older boys helped me because they recognized my talent."

She was a natural. All the skills and all the moves, came easily.

Later still, she played for a girls' team in Chalco, and then in high school. When Mexico formed a women's national team in 1997, she was invited to participate.

She has been a starter ever since.

Today, Dominguez, 25, who played for the Atlanta Beat of the Women's United Soccer Assn. when the pro league was intact, will be a guest player for the Carolina Courage when it plays the San Diego Spirit at noon in the WUSA Festival at the Home Depot Center in Carson.

"It's an incredible story," said Texas-born and Notre Dame-educated Monica Gonzalez, Mexico's captain.

"I've just seen her grow so much in six years. She was very ill mannered and kind of wild and disrespectful when she first got on the team. And she's changed so much.

"She realizes now that she's got to be a role model for millions of girls."

Gonzalez, from Corpus Christi, said Dominguez's background had a lot to do with her success as a player.

"For me, it's like if I didn't have soccer, I could do other things," she said. "I have an education. For me, soccer's a bonus.

"For her, this is all she has. Maybe that adds pressure, but for her it's more passion. She puts her heart and soul into it.

"She's a superstar and she's capable, I think, of surpassing any player who has ever played on the women's side. She's entertaining. She's fun to watch, because you never know what she's going to do. She tries all the hard things. She doesn't limit herself.

"As women, we don't do bicycle kicks and stuff like that, but she does."

How good a player is Dominguez?

Good enough, said U.S. women's national team Coach April Heinrichs, that she could start for the U.S., which won Olympic gold in 1996 and silver in 2000.

"The thing I like about Maribel is, she could play on any team in the world and get goals," Heinrichs said. "She doesn't have to have great players around her to be a great player.

"She makes every ball a good ball, and as a front-runner that's a tremendous quality to have."

Two-time world champion Julie Foudy agreed.

"She's very good," Foudy said. "She's one of those forwards that you give them an inch, or half a look or half a chance, and she's going to put it away and punish you. You have to be real careful."

It is no insult to the other players on Mexico's team to say that without Dominguez, they would not have achieved half of what they have.

"More than anything else, she loves soccer," said Mexico's Coach Leo Cuellar. "It's not just how she's been polishing her technique and her fitness and her knowledge of the game, but she brings that passion that is so important. She brings that character. She brings that determination that nothing is impossible."

It's an attitude that is infectious.

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