Loons’ Zarek Valentin calls out Puerto Rico federation for low pay to players

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Zarek Valentin prides himself on being a viejito on the Puerto Rico men’s national team — even if that Spanish term translates to old man and calls out his relatively advancing age.

The 32-year-old defender embraces being a veteran leader on the field. He helped Puerto Rico, which has a FIFA world ranking of 160, earn a scoreless road draw against 81st-ranked El Salvador in a CONCACAF World Cup qualification match on Thursday.

Valentin, who is in his second season with Minnesota United, also seeks to be a steward for the Puerto Rico team off the pitch. As an elder statesman, he has been advocating for better wages for him and fellow players when they are called onto the national team.

The non-unionized players approached the Puerto Rico Football Federation (FPF) in 2023 and had initial meetings on the subject last fall, Valentin told the Pioneer Press in late May.

A follow-up meeting was “a little bit picante,” Valentin shared, using the Spanish word for spicy. “And then we were promised that January 1, we would speak with them again. We were told immediately in January … we’re not negotiating, which pissed me off personally.”

Valentin said he received $75 dollars to be a part of the Puerto Rico team for its match in San Salvador last week. He flew to El Salvador’s capital on Monday, trained with the national team two days and played 90 minutes in the match before returning to Minnesota on Friday.

“It was an incredible result” versus El Salvador, Valentin said in an interview Monday. “ I would still do it again because I had such a blast with some of these players. The immense pride you feel going into a hostile environment in front of 20,000-plus (fans) and keeping a clean sheet.

“But when the pay comes out after that, I’ll get $75, which is not even a full helping of groceries at Whole Foods or Kowalski’s with the fam,” Valentin said. “I think that the players deserve better.”

The Puerto Rico Football Federation did not respond to requests for comment from the Pioneer Press.

Valentin said he and the FPF did not meet to discuss compensation issues during this international window. It was prearranged for him to fly back to Minnesota to be available to assist the shorthanded Loons in a 1-1 draw with FC Dallas on Saturday. He won’t compete for Puerto Rico against Anguilla in another CONCACAF World Cup qualification match on Tuesday.

Valentin said Puerto Rican players just want fair pay.

Puerto Rico ia a minnow compared to the whales of the U.S., Mexico and Canada teams in the region. Valentin and other Puerto Rico senior players are not using those bigger federations as benchmarks for themselves. They have been seeking pay comparisons with other small national teams such as Dominican Republic, Cuba, El Salvador, Costa Rica and others, Valentin said.

Puerto Rico players are even willing to accept performance-based compensation. “If (pay is) winning-based, then let’s win games,” Valentin said. “Then we all win together.”

If FPF can’t pay players more, then Valentin requests the federation give some insights into its finances. “Help us understand how much income (there is), what the books look like,” he said.

The Puerto Rico players are working on forming a union, which would make them become a bargaining unit against the FPF. Valentine said U.S. law has been beneficial, and they are working with the National Labor Relations Board. Valentin hopes sharing news of the pay requests and the subsequent impasse with the federation will jump-start action and possibly a phone call for him with FPF president Ivan Gutierrez.

Valentin said Puerto Rico has worked to instill a family environment, and players continue to report for national team duties out of a sense of pride and an opportunity if they play on lower-level club teams. But he said he believes the federation hasn’t kept up its familial responsibilities.

“We talk a lot about this being a family, being in this together, we got each other’s back,” Valentin said. “Then suddenly, when it comes to asking for a little bit of a pay bump, or even incentive-based pay bump, they don’t even talk to us.”

Knowing his soccer clock is ticking down, Valentin believes his tenure with the Puerto Rico national team is coming to an end. He wants to leave it in a better place. Puerto Rico has some promising younger players, primarily Jeremy de Leon, a 20-year-old winger on Real Madrid’s reserve team.

“I want to help out the younger generation,” Valentin said. “When they’re my age, hopefully their compensation schedule is a little bit better by the federation.”

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