Sporting KC

Like grandfather, like father, like son: Sporting KC's Diego Rubio was born into soccer

Diego Rubio was 10 years old when this anecdote took place. He emphasizes that detail twice.

It was halftime during one of his school-affiliated soccer games, a match that was not going particularly well, when his father walked down the steps of the bleachers and called for his attention.

“He said, ‘Hey, if you are not going to play well, I’ll take you home,’” Rubio recalled. “‘Play good or I’ll take you home and we’ll never come again.’”

Rubio, a Sporting Kansas City forward, says this story makes his dad seem more demanding than he really is. Hugo Rubio never truly had the intention of sending his son home.

But in the vein of a father attempting to pass on lessons to his children, the point was made.

“He didn’t usually say much, but in the right moment, he knew what to say to get your attention,” Rubio said. “A lot of other kids at that age, their fathers are saying good game and that’s it. I was being told how to develop and grow as a player.”

The source possessed some validity. Hugo Rubio enjoyed a playing career that spanned nearly two decades, including nine years with the Chile men’s national team. He retired as one of the 10 best goal scorers in Chile national team history.

He says he never intended for his kids to follow in his footsteps, but things have a way of working out. And he had a way of nudging the process along. Before Diego could walk, Hugo bought him a soccer ball.

“He never went anywhere without a (soccer) ball,” Hugo said through a translator. “It’s always been a big part of his life.”

It’s been part of the Rubio family for decades. Hugo’s father and Diego’s grandfather, Ildefonso, played professionally for 15 seasons.

Then Hugo. Now Diego, along with his two brothers, who have also played professionally.

Diego, 24, is the youngest of the bunch. He’s also the one that took it the most seriously, Hugo says. Diego was 5 when he first told his father that he, too, wanted to play soccer for a living.

At the family’s summer home in Chile, Diego organized games every day in the backyard. They grew to 50 people on a field about one-third the size of regulation pitch, he says.

Even as a kid, Diego spent time researching old videos of his father. Still does. The purpose? A training tool.

At 16, he swapped positions, moving to the wing to replicate his father.

“I wanted to play where he played,” Rubio said. “But we don’t play (alike). Not even close. He’s faster than me.”

Diego instead settled as a striker, a position Hugo envisioned all along.

“He always wanted to score goals,” Hugo said. “I told him that he didn’t have to be like me. He just needed to be himself.”

The manner in which soccer has tied the family together is not all that uncommon in Chile, Diego says. But the level at which they play is. Since 1961, someone in the immediate family has been turning soccer into a career.

The tradition has its tangible evidence. When Diego earned a tryout with the Chile national team, he spotted a picture of his father hanging on the wall inside the team’s training complex.

“Every person in my country talks about him as a super player,” Diego said. “He’s known as probably one of the best 25 or 30 players in the history of Chile.”

Their paths have since separated geographically — with Diego stationed in Kansas City since March 2016 and Hugo residing in his native Chile — but they remain intently connected. Hugo is currently visiting in Kansas City, and they plan to celebrate Father’s Day this weekend. Diego has three kids of his own.

Their conversations typically revolve around those topics now — family, kids, grandchildren. But soccer has its own place.

Diego is in his second season with Sporting KC. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his knee last October. His father was the first one he called after receiving the test results. He has only recently been cleared to return to game action and hopes to make his 2017 debut sometime this month.

On Wednesday, he was in a spectator role, sitting in a suite at Children’s Mercy Park to watch Sporting Kansas City’s victory in the U.S. Open Cup. Hugo sat beside him.

“Even when he’s not here, the first person I speak to after every game is my father,” Diego said. “You watch the game? You see the game? I want to know what he thinks.”

Fourteen years later, the response remains the same — brutal honesty.

“I called once, and he told me I needed to hire a personal trainer because I didn’t look too fast,” Diego said. “He’s always telling me I need to work on this or I need to work on that. But that’s why I ask. I want to grow.”

Related stories from Kansas City Star