From his childhood in Peru to his medical career in Baton Rouge, Dr. Rafael Cilloniz has never tried to kick soccer.
Cilloniz, 39, plays in several local leagues, but this week he is competing against other medical professionals in what is described as the physicians’ World Cup.
At the World Medical Football Championship in Long Beach, California, Cilloniz is representing the United States against doctors from around the world.
“You play with a U.S. uniform, you line up before the game and play the anthem — it’s like a World Cup,” Cilloniz says. “It’s quite an experience. You play on nice fields, different cities. It’s an excuse to travel, play soccer and have fun.”
Cilloniz does not remember learning to play soccer in Peru. His father always played, so he began kicking the ball around as soon as he could walk. In college, he played tournaments for his school. Once he received an offer to play in a lower division professional league, but he chose to pursue medicine instead.
After finishing medical school in Peru, Cilloniz completed his residency and a fellowship at the University of Florida College of Medicine before being hired at the Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital, where he specializes in treating children with respiratory illnesses.
Here, Cilloniz plays more soccer than he did in Peru, he says, because the south Louisiana climate allows him to play year-round. Some weeks he plays in four different leagues.
“I’ve got to doctor myself,” he says. “Sometimes I end up with torn muscles just because I overdo it.”
One of Cilloniz’s physician friends from South America encouraged him to join the American doctors’ team while he finished his fellowship in Florida, but he could not afford the travel.
After he started at Our Lady of the Lake, Cilloniz tried out and made the team, playing as a midfielder or forward, getting plenty of shots at the goal. He helped the team place ninth in Hungary in 2013 — the United States’ best finish since starting play in 2010. Traditional soccer powerhouse countries like Germany and Brazil also dominate the doctors’s games, Cilloniz says.
Composed of many international doctors, the American team has only three or four players born in the States.
They try out for the team in January or February every year, then meet each other for practices a couple of times a year, which places the team at a disadvantage, Cilloniz says. Many European teams play together every week.
The Medical World Cup began Saturday and ends on the Fourth of July. Every team is guaranteed to play six games, whether they win or lose.
While the doctors all want to win and represent their countries, Cilloniz says, they just want to compete.
“People who play soccer love the game and they keep playing forever,” Cilloniz says.