This is Fernando Clavijo’s bio and photo taken from the New York United Yearbook in 1980.
By Michael Lewis
You can talk about what a great player he was — indoor and out.
You can talk about what a great talent scout he was.
There was no doubt about that.
Sometimes the measure of a man in sports goes beyond just winning and losing. Sometimes it is just being a man or a mensch.
What I will remember most about Fernando Clavijo was the challenges he was willing to tackle head on. Clavijo, a former member of the U.S. national team, a member of the New York Arrows championship side and most recently the FC Dallas technical director, passed away Friday night. He was 63.
In 2004, it did not get any more head on than coaching the Haitian national team during World Cup qualifying. The team was forced to train and play both its first-round qualifying matches in south Florida due to violence and utter chaos in the country.
Fernando realized he would encounter challenges directing a team that hailed from the world’s second poorest nation, but nothing like he experienced 15 years ago.
On the night when Haiti clinched its CONCACAF first-round series against Turks and Caicos in Hialeah, Fla. Feb. 24, 2004, midfielder Peter Germain discovered his home in Saint-Marc, Haiti had been burned to the ground during fighting due chaos and violence on the island.
“It never crossed my mind it would be like this,” Clavijo told me at the time. “It’s incredible.”
“If you cannot be concerned with their problems, you cannot be human. I feel their pain. They are everything we [Haiti] have. We can bring happiness to many people in incredible situations.”
After the match seven players returned home to their families, but they had to be back before the team leaves for Sunday’s friendly in Nicaragua.
“It is so hard,” Clavijo said. “If my wife is at home in Haiti, and I have two kids, I will go. I don’t care how bad it is. We cannot kidnap them and keep them here.”
Clavijo’s responsibilities went beyond coaching. “If I do not do the visas today or tomorrow, they most likely won’t be done properly,” he said. “I’m prepared for everything.”
Home financial support ceased, and unpaid training expenses exceeded $200,000, forcing the team to move from hotel to hotel.
“The biggest challenge is to anticipate what is going to happen the next day,” said Clavijo, who was owed salary. “Forget about next month. Every day something new happens.
“The thing that keeps me going is the players. We have a great group. They have touched me. I feel when I look at them that we have an opportunity to do something wonderful here.”
Unfortunately, that did not happen. The Haitians were eliminated by Jamaica in the second round of CONCACAF qualifying.
The first time I saw Clavijo play was at old rickety Holleder Stadium back in 1981.
I couldn’t believe what I seen in this 25-year-old midfielder, who seemingly had just about everything you wanted in a player — skills, high soccer IQ, attacking finesse and a superb finishing touch, especially against the Rochester Flash.
At the time Clavijo starred for New York United (formerly Apollo). He was performing in the American Soccer League, the second tier of U.S. soccer. And what a midfield United had with Redmond Lane, Paul Kitson and Kitson. They all were quality players and should have been playing in the North American Soccer League at the time (By the way, United was stacked with some fabulous players at the time, including goalkeeper George Taratsides, defenders Ron Eden, who has directed Brentwood High School to 363 wins, several Suffolk County championships and one New York State boys soccer title), 19-year-old defender-midfielder Michael Collins, who is the general manager and president of California United FC (National Premier Soccer League) and forward Solomon Hilton, among others.
As it turned out, no matter what team Fernando was on, he usually found a way to make an impact When he toiled for the great New York Arrows sides, he helped them to their final Major Indoor Soccer League title during the 1981-82 season. He eventually got an opportunity to play in the NASL and was a key player for the Golden Bay Earthquakes and then helped the San Diego Sockers make MISL soccer history by playing on three championship sides over four seasons under the legendary coach Ron Newman.
After becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, Clavijo suited up for the USA for the first time as a 34-year-old in 1990, becoming one of the oldest players to make his debut for the Red, White and Blue (he also performed for the U.S. team that took home the silver medal in the FIFA futsal world championship in 1992). Not surprisingly, Fernando became a vital national team player, performing in his first and only World Cup at the age of 37 in 1994.
One of the saddest days of my soccer life occurred in 2005. While driving up to Oneonta, N.Y. for the National Soccer Hall of Fame induction in 2005, I discovered that his friend Kitson had passed away. Not wanting to be a Debbie Downer on one of Fernando’s greatest days, I had to tell him the news while apologizing to him as well. He was shocked but understood what I had to do.
That was the type of person Fernando was.
Always with a smile.
Always looking for the bright side, sometimes with a quip, sometimes with something profound.
Beyond his fabulous soccer resume, Fernando Clavijo was a great guy.
He was beloved by so many people.
And I know I’m not the only person who felt so. Just look at some the comments on his obituary on my Facebook page:
Fernando Clavijo was a great player, coach and a great guy. I saw him play for New York United for the first time in…
RIP, Fernando, a class act all the way, on and off the field.