By Debbie Gardner
Before the COVID-19 restrictions, you’d find them taking the field at the Gremio Lusitano Club in Ludlow, MA, on any given Sunday morning. A group of men, all over the age of 49, sharing one passion – the game of soccer.
The Western Mass Lusitano is the only area team that – until the recent suspension of the spring season – played in The New England Over the Hill Soccer League, an organization dedicated to offering players an opportunity to compete against like–minded – and aged – soccer aficionados. League members since 2011, and Division One champs for their 2014 season, Western Mass Lusitano carries on a proud tradition of sport that for many members, like team captain Antonio (Tony) Magalhaes, speaks to their Portuguese roots.
A team with tradition
Magalhaes said he started playing soccer on the streets of his Indian Orchard neighborhood as a boy.
“Back in the day, it was the soccer that held us all together,” he shared, talking about the close-knit neighborhood where he grew up.
“I think soccer offered everyone a chance to play when we were kids.” Like many of his current Lusitano teammates, he played in junior high school and high school, but gave up the sport as jobs and family obligations began to fill up more and more of life.
Magalhaes said he came back to soccer in the spring of 2011, joining the amateur team at the Lusitano Club when his children hit their teen years and no longer needed dad to “drive them to dance or hockey practice.” At that point, he said, it was dad who needed something to do.
“This team has been around since the 1970s and ‘80s,” Magalhaes said, adding that back then a lot of the “old guard” of the club played, and the club’s Lusitano Field regularly hosted a professional soccer team. Today’s Western Mass Lusitano plays on the Anna Dias field, which is right in front of the professional stadium, he added.
A member of the Gremio Lusitano Club since the early 2000s Magalhaes noted that before he joined in 2011, the team was still “more of a social team, with games between Portuguese clubs. You would set up games between [club] teams, you’d play, and they would feed you. We’d go there in the spring; we’d do the same in the fall.”
Joining the League
But as the Portuguese social clubs began to shrink and lose members, “we wanted to keep playing, and The New England Over the Hill Soccer League (NEOTHSL) was the place to go,” Magalhaes said of the team’s decision to join that league in 2011.
For the 2020 season Magalhaes said the NEOTHSL has teams for players over the age of 30, over the age of 40, over the age of 49, over the age of 56, over the age of 61, “and over the age of 63, I believe.”
The Lusitano team, which falls in the over-49 age group, has been one of the largest teams in the league in that category, he added.
A ‘great group of guys’
Today’s team also looks a bit different from the original social club team Maglhaes said. The team he captains today is a mix of players from multiple towns and nationalities. “Half are not of Portuguese descent who play,” he said.
Tom McDonald of Longmeadow is among the team members who have come to Lusitano because of a love of the game. “I actually played for the team the very first year [they were with the league], when I was 50, but I only played the first season. I had younger kids who played baseball and soccer,” at that time, and their practices limited the time he could play, McDonald said. When his children got older, McDonald said he called to ask about re-joining the Lusitano.
“‘I had to try out [again], and they said, ‘yeah, you can join the team’ and I’ve been with them ever since,” said McDonald, who turns 60 in May. He noted the 2020 season would be his third since rejoining the team.
“I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I started playing again,” McDonald, who plays either a midfielder or fullback for the team, shared. “They are a great bunch
of guys, everybody has their own skills,” he said. “Everybody contributes, everybody voices their pleasure...and their displeasure [with our performance].
“Most of the home games, after we play - win or lose - we have a cookout and talk about the game and have a little fun afterwards,” McDonald said. “It’s a nice bunch of guys to play with.”
McDonald added he doesn’t go to the gym to work out, or even have a gym membership. “I try to play more than just on Sundays; there’s a pickup game [in Longmeadow] on Wednesdays, and sometimes on Saturdays.” Soccer, he said, is “great for your cardio, it’s great for your heart. It keeps you fit.”
Victor Jeronimo, who has been with Lusitano for the past five years, said the team became his way to keep playing as he aged out of a younger league.
“When I turned 50, I was playing with a 35 and older league,” Jeronimo said of his time with a team in another community.” It was getting tough to chase those young kids, so I made the jump to the 50 and older [team].” The Lusitano, he added, is the only competitive men’s soccer team “of any age” in this part of Western Mass.
He noted this team has “a core team that has been there for a long time, a really good group of guys,” as well as newer members from diverse backgrounds. “We get up to 30 players [on the roster] but we normally have up to 18 or 20 who show up on any given week [for practice],” Jeronimo said. “The president over at the Gremio Lusitano has been great. He gives us the field for practice and games. They really support soccer over there.” As for his role with the team, Jeronimo said he plays pretty much whatever the team needs at any given practice.
“It depends on who shows up for the week. If the goalie doesn’t show up, I play goalie. If they need me in midfield, I play there. I usually play forward, but it varies week to week,” he said. As for the Sunday morning practices, Jeronimo said it “gets you out of bed and gets you going.
“At this age you are playing for the love of the game,” he added. “You aren’t getting paid and you’re risking getting hurt, so you are playing for the love of [the sport].”
That, and “you get to hang around with good people,” he added.
Hoping more will come play
Magalhaes said the team has had an up and down record since its Division 1 championship win in 2014, when he said “we were the best over 50 team in the league,” but that hasn’t dampened any of the player’s passion for the game. “We have no superstars on our team," he said, “Everybody just wants to play the game.
“For us, it’s always been the love of the game and our little social network,” Magalhaes said. “The game keeps you together, it allows you to stay together. Most home games, we have a cookout and families are invited.
“We love our families, they don’t always love to watch us play; we’re not the best entertainment in sports right now,” he joked.
He said the team is hoping to continue its season in the fall, with regular practices beginning when the league deems it is safe to do so. For now, like all things, life is different.
And he has a dream for the future of Western Mass Lusitano.
“It would be great to have an over-30 team, and over-40 team and the over-49 team. It would be great to have those feeder teams, if [guys] want to stay healthy and keep playing,” Magalhaes said.
For information about the Western Mass Lusitano, including any future signups and when the season may recommence, email firstname.lastname@example.org.