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🇬🇹 Guatemala's secret weapon? A YouTuber in Northern California
Juan Rodas is seeing his volunteer recruitment efforts pay off.
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Juan Rodas wasn’t that different from the typical 20-year-old. Five years ago, he was active on social media, sometimes sliding into DMs. Except instead of asking “Where’s the party at tonight?” or “Want to go for a coffee?” He had a very specific question for the people he contacted.
“You wouldn’t happen to be Guatemalan, would you?”
A lot of people answered yes. Not that he didn’t have his suspicions. Rodas has been digging into the background of Guatemala-eligible players for some time, working to spur a federation into action to produce the best possible national team program it can.
“Guatemala, we’ve never done anything big in the main national teams, so that’s why I try my best to recruit both male and female players from all over the world,” Rodas told me this week. “Every time I find a player, I send them to the federation.”
The federation is listening. Sunday’s Gold Cup quarterfinal against Jamaica, in which attackers Rubio Rubin and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and defender Aaron Herrera likely will start, a trio of players who Rodas also helped put in the white and blue of Guatemala.
Guatemala’s successful run to the U-20 World Cup included several players Roda helped link with the federation, including star forward Arquimides Ordóñez and Rutgers midfielder Néstor Cabrera, fruits of those first messages sent five years ago.
By his count, he’s helped Guatemala identify and bring 40 dual-nationals into their programs, on both the men’s and women’s side and across all age groups.
A 25-year-old born in the U.S. who supports Guatemala because of his dad’s passion, Rodas doesn’t currently have a formal job with the Guatemalan federation. But, he maintains good ties with the coaching staff, including senior national team manager Luis Fernando Tena, and other employees in the federation’s structure.
By day, he works in a school district, helping connect students with internships and career opportunities. By night, he’s a journalist, YouTuber and scout trying to present players of Guatemalan descent with a different opportunity: The chance, if they’re good enough, to suit up for the national team.
“I do it on my lunch, when I get off work, at night. It definitely takes up a lot of time because you have a lot of players or parents with a lot of questions,” Rodas said. “It’s a lot because I’m a normal human being with a 9-to-5.”
FIFA regulations permit players born in a territory or whose biological parents or grandparents were born in a territory to represent that country’s national team.1 Players must obtain a passport from that country, which Rodas says sometimes requires a new birth certificate to be obtained.
That was the case for Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, a 31-year-old Derby Country winger whose mom was born in Guatemala. He grew up in Birmingham, England and spent his entire career playing in England. A few months back, Rodas noted an article that said the player, also eligible for Jamaica and Belize in addition to England, had Guatemalan heritage.
He emailed the player’s agency, told them he was the head scout for Guatemala’s FA and soon was on a late-night phone call with Mendez-Laing’s agent, who was waking up in England.
The ball got rolling, and eventually Mendez-Laing was a surprise inclusion in Guatemala’s Gold Cup squad and a starter in all three group matches, assisting half of Guatemala’s four goals in the first phase.
“We didn’t know Nathaniel very well and he trained fewer days with us than the rest of the squad,” Tena said after a tournament-opening win over Cuba in which Mendez-Laing set up the winning goal. “We expected less.
“Even physically, we thought he’d be able to go less time than he did, but he’s got so much hunger, so much enthusiasm, he’s adapted quickly to his teammates and that helped him play longer and play better than we expected. I think he’s going to get better as he goes as well.”
While the coaching staff didn’t know Mendez-Laing too well, by this time Rodas did. Since he’s bilingual and the player is more comfortable speaking English, Rodas walked him through the paperwork process with around 10 video calls as he acquired the needed documents. “I have to give thanks to you because I think you were a big part of this happening,” Mendez-Laing said during an interview posted on Rodas’ YouTube page.
“The federation literally had it hella easy,” Rodas tells me.2 “All they had to do is have him file (with FIFA) and go to an appointment to get his passport.”
Rodas does it for the love of the national team he supports and for the feeling of seeing players on the field who raise the team’s level.
During conversations with Mendez-Laing, though, he had a few moments of frustration, realizing the player would’ve been open to suiting up for Guatemala earlier in his career.
Rodas hopes the federation will formalize his role or build out their scouting efforts beyond what he’s doing with social media, Google alerts and word of mouth.
“The U.S., Mexico, Canada, who have a lot more money than we do, have the wealth to invest in a scouting department,” Rodas said. “Our federation has never been that wealthy, but I believe they have to invest in order to produce and get players of this caliber.
“This isn’t for me. It’s for 19 million Chapines that are living, breathing and bleeding for futbol. That’s why I do it.”
At the moment, he has a few other targets that could help Tena with his stated goal of getting the senior men’s national team to a first-ever World Cup in 2026. Los Angeles native Kobe Hernandez-Foster and Sweden-born Victor Gonçalves Andersson, currently at AIK, are top targets.
Even if those players don’t end up putting on the shirt and even if the Guatemalan federation doesn’t hire Rodas, he’ll keep searching because of how it feels when it all comes together like it did this week when Guatemala topped Guadeloupe to win its Gold Cup group.
“I cried of happiness. This has never happened for us,” Rodas said. “Of the 25 years I’ve been living, I’ve never seen the Guatemala squad come back and do it in the fashion they did. It just brings joy, happiness, tears.
“My dad is 50 something and said, ‘I’ve never seen a Guatemala team like this.’ For him to see that, for him to be happy, it means the world to me. It’s crazy how fútbol lives in people.”
The sport makes us do crazy things like sliding into Instagram DMs of random players, digging through old interviews, staying up late to talk to an agent you’d never heard of a few hours ago. Then something amazing happens, and it’s all worth it.
It gets a little trickier than this, but I’d say this is the gist.
I told you he was from Northern California