Sunday, September 6, 2009

Jorge “El Conejo” Lievano

When the El Salvador National Team took the pitch last night at Rio Tinto Stadium, there was a special supporter in the audience. Provo resident Jorge “El Conejo” Lievano knew well what the team was going through. After all, he had spent eleven years in the shoes of those players on the pitch. Lievano was a member of the El Salvador National Team from 1963-1973.

He also had an extraordinary run of club play in El Salvador, including a match against Pele’s Santos Club (pictured below) in which Lievano’s side ended up the victors.


Jorge "Conejo"Lievano is the player on the far right. The score was 2-1 for Alianza. The Santos Club with Pele was trying very hard to come back and win this game. Supposedly on these games, they would take Pele out early to avoid any injury. But in this game, they wanted to win so bad that they just kept leaving him in. But even with Pele, they were not able to come back and Alianza won. It was a very exciting time for the Alianza Club.

“The Football War”

Lievano was part of the historic El Salvador National Team that qualified for the World Cup in Mexico in 1970. They became the first Central American team to make it to the big stage.

However, when asked through an interpreter, his son Jorge “Coky” Lievano, the elder Lievano pointed to the match against Honduras in Azteca in Mexico City on June 27, 1969 as the highlight of his experience with the El Salvador National Team.

The match was the third between the two sides during the qualifying phase, with each side having won at home. This one was a playoff to determine who moved on to the World Cup. There was a lot at stake on the field, but there were also a lot of off-the-field implications brewing as well.

The World Cup qualifying matches captured the interest of both nations (Honduras and El Salvador), and raised the emotions of the bordering nations. In the backdrop to this, there had been some ongoing disputes between the two countries, primarily over a Land Reform policy instituted by the Honduran government which displaced 300,000 Salvadorans who had settled and been working land within Honduras. The entire situation had been heightened by the media coverage of the events that occurred.

The first match in Honduras, was reportedly full of hate, and El Salvadoran fans had been attacked prior to the match. It was reported that for the second match in San Salvador, Honduran flags were burnt, machine gun wielding soldiers were surrounding the pitch, and armored vehicles had to bring players in.

On June 26, 1969, the night before the playoff match, El Salvador dissolved all ties with Honduras. Needless to say, that heightened the emotion of the qualifier, and when the two teams took the pitch, there was seemingly much more at stake than just a football match.

In the match, Honduras took a 2-1 lead at halftime, putting a lot of pressure on the El Salvadoran side. However, El Salvador managed an equalizer in the second half, and went on to win in extra time. El Salvador was World Cup bound!

Unfortunately a month later war broke out between the two countries. The war was not a result of the on-field soccer battles between the two teams, but the emotion certainly carried over to the soccer pitch.

Professional Club Career

Lievano had a very successful club career in El Salvador. The highlight was probably with Alianza FC, one of the major clubs in El Salvador. That team beat Pele’s Santos club, Club America, and Flamenco. The team won a championship, and became nicknamed the “Orchestra Alva”.

When Lievano was young, he had a brother, and his parents dressed them the same. People gave them the affectionate nickname of "little rabbits". Later, during his soccer career, Lievano proved to be a very quick player. So he naturally earned the nickname "El Conejo", or "the rabbit".

Lievano also played professionally in the United States in the late-60's. He wound up playing professionally for a team in Oakland in a league that was essentially the pre-cursor to the NASL. The Oakland Clippers were part of the National Professional Soccer League, which was considered an “outlaw league”, and failed to get the support of the US Soccer Federation.

Coming to America

Because of the Civil War in El Salvador that broke out in 1980, Lievano chose to bring his young family to the US. Children at the time were being recruited by both sides in the war in El Salvador and Lievano chose to bring them here for safety. The family was LDS and so coming to Utah was an easy decision and they had a few contacts here.

The Lievano’s landed in Provo, Ut. Of course, soccer had to be part of this new life, and Lievano quickly got involved. He started a team, the Pioneers in 1986. One of the players on that team, was named Chris Watkins. Watkins is the current head coach for BYU’s men’s soccer program.

Current El Salvador team

While Lievano had some contacts with the current El Salvador team he had not followed the team closely in recent years because the team had gone through a dark period in recent years. However, Lievano feels that this current team which is very young is being built for the next qualifying period for the 2014 World Cup. He also feels that the team is on track at least partially due to their new coach, Carlos de los Cobos.

When the team made it into the Hex, Lievano and others were caught by surprise. The El Salvadoran community is extremely excited about the prospects, even though the team lost last night and likely ended their hopes for the 2010 World Cup.

When the team came calling, Lievano was willing to help in any way he could. He reached out to his former soccer student, Chris Watkins and made arrangements for the team to practice at BYU during their stay here.

I’m sure that Lievano will be watching with interest over the next four years to see if the team from his homeland can make it back to some place that he has already been, the World Cup.