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Dec 30, 2015


As you may have seen over the last few weeks, we’ve started a series here on The Original Winger called SOCCER OVER EVERYTHING that focuses on telling the great stories of people who are living and working in the soccer world, that in one way or another, came to it in not so traditional ways.

I told my story, and then we reached out to a couple of people that we know doing great things in the soccer world, to tell theirs.

I first got to know Malena through her work with Women United, a group that she helped start and talks about in her piece, and social media. I didn’t know her story until I saw a great video put together by Brian Urbano, that I’ll add to the end of the post. This is a great piece and we are thankful that Malena took the time to tell it to us!


This is Malena Barajas’ SOCCER OVER EVERYTHING story as told by Malena Barajas

Malena UCL Trophy Tour

Devotion is a special condition – at times a gift and at others a handicap. Devotion makes the world go round. Money and power make it spin, but devotion is the force that drives both. Without devoted followers, politicians and brands ain’t shit.

The magic of devotion makes us favor that which we want over that which we need. Your piggy bank stash was more likely to be earmarked for your next toy and not your college fund. How many have lived on instant noodles alone for semesters on end to keep a little cash in their pocket for the weekend’s adventures? It’s been time to replace your X, but dat new Bumpy Pitch collection is lit. Yes, you spend on what you need, but you’re more than likely prioritizing what you love. And we all should know love isn’t blind, it is blinding.

To borrow from Nick Hornby, I fell in love with football, the way I was later to fall in love with… FANS. I am intrigued, involved, obsessed… devoted. Fans are at the center of my profession, and before that they were simply my center. My journey into soccer fandom has taken me from lost soul to evangelist. This is the story of how I became your biggest fan.

Malena Volunteering

In 2008, I was on the fronts of political and social policy battlegrounds in the punishing Arizona desert. As a policy staffer and political activist, I was heavily involved and caught up in the intersect between the public and civic sectors. If a project in town involved a political or social issue, I was involved or trying to get involved. I was constantly working. I was a kid, basically, clearing a straight path to the grownup table. Hangouts with friends involved strategizing over how to get a bill passed or a project funded. I am proud of the work I did then and humbled by the recognition I received. But at 24 years old and after 10 years of fighting the good fight, I was exhausted. Devoted, but exhausted.

I did what came naturally: take on more activities! This time, that activity was soccer. I joined a co-ed outdoor league after agreeing to be a substitute for ONE game.

“Hey Malena, you run right? We need an extra girl on the field today or else we forfeit. All you have to do is stand there.”

– Umm… what time?

– I. can’t. breath.

– Sorry, no subs. Want to come back next week?

– Okay.

Malena Cactus Pricks

Sucker. Then I joined an indoor league, then the Wednesday night cascaritas. Those endorphins will get ya if you’re not careful. No one on the sidelines wanted to talk about teacher salaries or transit oriented development or downtown revitalization. I made new friends, drank my first beer, stopped having the weekly anxiety attacks I’d come to accept as collateral damage. Soccer was my safe place.

Malena AO US Flag

Then the 2010 World Cup happened and my path to the grownup table was forever diverted. During the 2010 World Cup, I watched the first two games at bars with friends. Then my friends didn’t want to go, so I made other friends. The American Outlaws Tucson chapter adopted me, and I tried to adopt every other soccer fan I saw on the mean streets of T-Town.

After the World Cup, I didn’t want to miss the camaraderie and banter from week to week, so I started an Arsenal America chapter, Southern Arizona Armoury. At work, I was working with neighborhood associations to get a housing center built. During my free time, I was trying to convince bar owners to open at 4:30 a.m.

One morning, I read in the daily paper that someone at FC Tucson was trying to bring Thierry Henry and the New York Red Bulls to town, but access to the stadium proposed for a friendly match against another MLS team was yet to be secured. I called that someone and offered a second stadium. A stadium which I did not own. Or operate. Or anything else but maybe drive by it from time to time. Then I called the mayor’s chief of staff (a tottenham supporter, but really a super cool dude), and left a voicemail in which I basically said, “I’m not a lawyer, but I bet I can find a loophole in that stadium contract. My life depends on my meeting Thierry Henry. Call me back!”

I didn’t get a copy of the contract or a call back from my friend in the Mayor’s office, but FC Tucson called and asked me to be involved in the project. And so I was. That involvement helped yield millions in public and private investment in soccer infrastructure and MLS pre-season in southern Arizona. With friends from AO Tucson, we started the Cactus Pricks. Not long after that, with a group of women I met on Twitter, we started Women United FC. That’s consumer commitment right there, people.

Two years and four fan groups later, soccer as a safe place became soccer over everything.

Malena Ao Group

In 2012, I set off to graduate school in New York City with the end game to build soccer fields and soccer specific stadiums all over the country. After a year of economics and stats, it became clear to me that I was on the wrong path. My most fond memories of time spent at the NYU library are of me trying not to throw my computer across the room after watching Arsenal get scored on in UCL play, watching (and taking notes on) the State of the League, and excusing myself from study group to take a call from Howler Magazine. Needless to say, that’s not the sort of devotion NYU expected from an MPA candidate who had somehow convinced it through Herc Gomez references in her personal statement that she could change the world.

After a year of that, I was done with NYU but not New York City. I chose to stay to pursue working in the game. I was finding my way to soccer projects, but none that were paying much or at all. Without reliable income, my savings dwindled. Peanut butter and jelly for days. (One night, after a week of oatmeal for breakfast, lunch and dinner, my sister sent me a little cash to get me through the week. I ordered a hamburger. Best damn burger I ever had.)

My family supported me as much as it could, but as the days passed and with no job on the horizon, I had to plan my exit strategy. In an effort to lift my spirits, a friend dragged me out of the house and treated me to lunch. I told her I would call my dad that night to ask him for a ticket home. As I am telling her this, my phone rings. My new boss was calling.

But I did not answer the phone.

I did not recognize the phone number and let it go to voicemail. My friend and I listened to the voicemail together, then giddy I hurried home to return the call. I’d be working for free, but I would be working for one of the biggest teams in the world: FC Bayern Munich.

Malena Bayern Staff 2

The following week, the New York Cosmos called and offered me translation work. That work sustained me for several months and then a few months later, FC Bayern took me on as a freelancer to focus on fan engagement. I see myself as an advocate at heart. My work is not about selling more shirts. Well, it is, but it is about much more than that. My end game is not to sell one or even one million products, it is to honor devotion. My work is about building meaningful relationships with fans and helping to develop their leadership and technical skills, which ultimately lead to growing the soccer community in our country. I firmly believe those of us who work in the game must be culturally proficient and sincere in our efforts to engage fans. If we’re not drinking the kool-aid, no one will drink with us.

The day I wrote this, I received an email from a fan club founder celebrating her 100th member. I was – still am – filled with pride. She has worked incredibly hard – so have her fellow fan club members. They will continue to build their club, recruit new fans and nurture fellow devotees. I’ve experienced this feeling time and time again. I’m one of them.

That same day, a fan from the Philippines and her husband visited the FC Bayern office. I was there to greet them, share with them why a German club has a U.S. operation and hand them a small gift courtesy of the club. It was her favorite player’s autograph. She was overwhelmed and had to take a seat. She said she could cry.

I could have cried then, too, but I waited until I got home. As I recounted the moment to my partner, I cried because I was happy to have been a little bolt on the vehicle of each of these fan’s experience. I am fortunate to work in soccer. I am fortunate to work for fans. I am thankful for the experience I am living; it may not last much longer.

There are incredible challenges to spreading the soccer gospel. We must be mindful of inadvertently (and sometimes blatantly) nurturing racism, sexism and other abuse. It is these challenges that require me to practice mindfulness and actively protect the integrity of my work. Yes, I want to be on the winning side, but above that, I want to be on the right side. I believe most fans want that, too. So long as I can continue to be the fan’s biggest fan, I am devoted to choosing soccer over everything.

Malena Bayern Audi Tour

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