Alethea with the Portland Timbers’ 2015 MLS Cup.

When I first came up with the idea that would become my book and, eventually, my business, I first sought out advice from the smartest person I knew. Several years later, in 2020 and with the business well up and running, I was ready to hire my first employee.

So again I sought out, and this time hired, the smartest and most organized person I knew. And it was the same person!

So say hello to Alethea Smartt, first employee of Groundhopper Soccer Guides. I like to say her last name needs the extra “t” because she’s just that damn smart. She will provide the administrative and organizational backbone while I do … whatever it is I do. Go to games and write, I suppose.

But she’s a lot more than smart and organized: For example, how many people do you know who have been a firefighter and a flight attendant? Also among the many interesting things about her, and about doing business in the modern age: She lives in Ecuador! So we’re a British football outfit based in Oregon with an employee in South America. Because why not?

And now I’ll let her say hello to you.

“Who are you?”

Livin’ the life on the beaches of Ecuador.

That’s the question Paul sent me in an email earlier this week asking me to introduce myself to you, the Groundhopper Guides community. There are books to be written on the subject (embed link here to Kickstarter campaign for my forthcoming autobiography — just kidding!) but, for now, let’s focus on how my life intertwines with the world of soccer.

Let’s start with, “Hi, my name is Alethea Smartt. Once you get to know me, you may discover that I’m one of the more interesting and unconventional people you’ll ever meet.” (Note from Paul: She is being a little silly, perhaps, but this is absolutely true.)

I have always been athletic and enjoyed competing in lots of different sports. I started playing soccer in high school as a way to stay active during softball’s off-season. I was a fullback and was selected for the All-District and All-Region teams during my senior year. I continued to play during college but eventually had to quit as I needed more time to study — Major in French, Minor in English Writing — and work as a firefighter and firefighting instructor. (Paul again: What did I tell you?)

I remember going to a friendly between the U.S. Women’s National Team and Sweden in 1997 and was thrilled to see my favorite players (Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Michelle Akers) in person. I continued to follow world soccer and particularly enjoyed watching games when I was traveling to Europe for work during the early 2000’s. I loved the sport enough to set an alarm for the pre-dawn hours to watch many of the 2010 World Cup matches in South Africa. I attended my first MLS match in 2009 in Seattle (Paul: I’ll just say I hope to hell they lost!) and, when I officially moved to Portland, OR in 2012, I became a devoted Timbers and Thorns fan. (Good choice.)

(From Paul: She also forgot the part where she worked in the beer industry for years. Talk about soccer-related experience! Check out CoasttoProst.com.)

But the truth is that I am a nomad, a lifelong traveler who owes my earliest inspiration to explore the world to my junior high school French teacher. As much as I love Portland (and all the cities where I lived before), I rarely settle down in one place for very long. I have managed to find a way to live a relatively simple, minimalistic life by prioritizing experiences over possessions. After many years of the corporate grind, I started my own business in 2016 in which I provide administrative and project management services while working remotely. I have now visited all 50 U.S. states and have traveled through almost 100 countries. I speak three languages (English, French and Spanish) and write about my experiences on my blog Alethea’s Excellent Adventures.

Local Ecuadorian game.

After traveling through Central and Eastern Europe for four months in 2017, followed by Central and South America for 16 months in 2018-19, I decided to move to Ecuador this year. The key factors that influenced my decision (besides a general lack of desire to live in the U.S. for the past four years) are: they use the U.S. dollar which makes financial transactions a lot easier; it is very affordable compared to the U.S.; it is safe and relatively clean; it has beautiful natural areas, including the Galápagos Islands; the culture is diverse and interesting; and the people are very open and welcoming. I have applied for a two-year residency visa and am testing out a variety of locations where I might want to live in the coming months. I’m currently renting an apartment in a small coastal town north of Guayaquil and within shouting distance of the local stadium where I enjoy watching the lower-level leagues play every weekend.

Due to the influence of my friends, I follow Barcelona Sporting Club, a team that was founded in 1925 and competes in LigaPro, the professional men’s soccer league here in Ecuador. They have won the most national championships, have had the most success in international tournaments, and are locally known as the “Ídolo del Astillero.” (Warning: the song at that link is terrible!) As soon as spectators are allowed to attend games in person, I will go to a home game in Guayaquil. In the meantime, I watch every match on TV.

Like Paul, I am a groundhopper, and have been to professional soccer matches in multiple countries. One of my most memorable experiences was seeing a Clásico in Guatemala City in 2018. The Doroteo Guamuch Flores stadium was built in 1948 and has not been significantly remodeled. It is a maze of broken concrete and narrow entryways where spectators are separated from the pitch by a tall chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Sadly, it is the site of one of the deadliest incidents in sports venue history when, before a World Cup qualifying match in 1996, 83 people were killed in a stampede caused by overcrowding.

Guatemalan Clásico

The match I saw, between crosstown arch-rivals Municipal and Comunicaciones, was sparsely attended even though the teams were competing for playoff spots in the Apertura championship. I bought a general admission ticket for less than $10 and went with a couple of local friends. We ended up sitting next to a raucous group of Municipal supporters. In spite of going through multiple security checkpoints (full body pat-downs and thorough bag searches) to enter the stadium, the fanáticos managed to sneak in fireworks. The action on the field was captivating enough, with rough challenges, a penalty and an expulsion, but it was equally entertaining (and occasionally, terrifying) to observe the fans, some of whom ended up being escorted out of the stands by police in riot gear. Municipal won the match 2-0, but Comunicaciones made it all the way to that season’s final, which they lost 2-3 to Guastatoya over two games.

I have known Paul for many years; we met not long after I moved to Portland. We were in a writer’s group together for a few years, exploring ways to increase book sales and blog readership. In 2015, Paul asked me to review his proposal for a new soccer business. Now, five years later, I’m his first employee! For the past few months I have been doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work at GroundhopperGuides.com including organizing, proofreading and editing all of his blog posts, cataloging the newsletters, building a CRM database, and designing a new logo. I recently wrote my first post for the website (about UK travel during the pandemic) and am currently proofreading the new edition of “The Groundhopper Guide to Soccer In England.” (Order your signed copy today!)

In the (hopeful) near future, when spectators can safely travel and attend games, the plan is that Paul will spend more time in England (and Europe) doing research, selling tickets and leading tours, and I will manage the administrative aspects of the business. And, in spite of the fact that I have traveled extensively throughout the UK, I have never been to a professional soccer match there. So I will most certainly be joining future Groundhop tours!

Thanks for reading and feel free to contact me at alethea@groundhopperguides.com. You can also follow my adventures on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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