I was woken up by the blaring sound of vuvuzelas and car horns. Typically this would have annoyed me to no end. But this was the day of the big World Cup match – Colombia versus Brazil. It also happened to be the 4th of July holiday back home in the US. And while I was a tad bit sad that I’d be spending yet another 4th of July abroad, I was way more excited to be in the Caribbean city of Cartagena to watch a game that was so important Colombia’s president declared the day a civic holiday.
It’s pure coincidence that I happened to be traveling in Colombia during the World Cup. And though I know relatively nothing about soccer football, game days have been some of the best days I’ve had since I touched down in Colombia a month ago.
My boyfriend and I had arrived in Bogotá just in time for team Colombia’s first match. Since we’d never been to the city before, we didn’t quite have our bearings. We were searching for a place to watch the game when it started pouring down rain (as it tends to do in Bogotá). We ducked into the first café we came across and took a seat in a room full of true fútbol fanatics. It was there that we experienced team Colombia’s first victory. I’m not sure which I enjoyed more, seeing Colombia shut out Greece 3-0 or watching the fans jump in ecstasy after each goal. I also witnessed another thing that would become the norm during the weeks to come. After Los Cafeteros’ win, elated fans took to the street – they bumped music, honked car horns and blew on vuvuzelas; they danced, high-fived and stopped traffic as they celebrated their country’s first win. Suffice it to say it was fun and the perfect introduction to this amazing and often misunderstood country.
I watched the next three games in different places and in various manners – each experience more memorable than the last. For the second match I was on a four-hour bus ride to Pablo Escobar’s old stomping ground, Medellín – admittedly it was very poor timing for a transit day. As we drove along the rural roads I could hear small towns explode with noise as entire villages celebrated each of team Colombia’s goals. Luckily the bus driver stopped so the passengers could catch the last few minutes of the match at a roadside restaurant – only in Colombia!
In Medellín I gathered with hundreds of fans in one of the city’s main squares. They were clad in gold and red jerseys, their cheeks were painted with red, blue and yellow stripes, they donned crazy hats and colorful wigs and, of course, they blew into very loud vuvuzelas.
Colombia dominated Japan and scored four times that day. With each goal the crowd erupted, chanting “COL-OM-BIA! COL-OM-BIA!” They jumped up and down, waving their flags and getting covered in white foam. (The spray foam salesmen did pretty well that day.) After Los Cafeteros’ third victory there was such a cacophony my ears were ringing for hours afterwards. But it was so worth it! Being around so many enraptured fans was infectious and I’m pretty sure that was the day I caught World Cup fever.
In Cartagena – the city I will spend an entire month in – team Colombia appeared to be a team of destiny as they went on to another victory over Uruguay. Fans partied in the streets and as I was walking back to my apartment there was no way to escape the celebration. I was pulled into the crowd and virtually forced by an ecstatic Colombian woman to take shots of aguardiente (anise-flavored liquor) out of a little plastic shot glass. Eh, why not? I drank and reveled in the frenetic atmosphere as an impromptu parade began. Cars cruised by – the drivers honked as the passengers hung out of the windows, waving the Colombian flag and slapping palms with passersby. The celebration went on into the night.
The World Cup had been so much fun. So you can imagine my excitement when I woke up on the day of the most important match of all, Colombia versus Brazil. All of Cartagena was in the streets and we struggled to find two empty seats at any bar. We finally managed to cram into an over-packed restaurant where we waited for the game to start. As someone who had zero interest in football just a few short weeks ago I was slightly surprised at how anxious I was about this particular game.
The nervous energy was palpable. The crowd emitted shrill screams whenever Brazil threatened to score, a teenage boy yelled at the TV in frustration and the woman next to me anxiously covered her face with her hands. The wind was taken out of the crowd’s sails early, after a devastating goal by Brazil. But despite the setback the fans never gave up hope. They drank Aguilas (a popular local beer), they danced and they chanted “COL-OM-BIA! COL-OM-BIA!”
Despite team Colombia’s best efforts, including a goal toward the end of the match, they couldn’t get it done. They lost 2-1. The World Cup was essentially over. It was definitely a heartbreaking loss, yet these fans had the most amazing attitude. Their team had lost. Their star player, James Rodríguez, was in tears on the television. But instead of dejectedly filing out of the restaurant, they stood up in unison and started applauding their team. Despite the loss the fans kept cheering and they paraded down the streets as if their team had won the entire World Cup. Colombians are so incredibly gracious in defeat; it was truly touching.
For me the loss meant that all the fun was over. But for Colombians this Word Cup represented something much more important than good times. With a country that’s been so stigmatized by its violent history – including drug cartels, Pablo Escobar, kidnappings and the FARC – the World Cup had introduced a new side of Colombia to a global audience. This is a beautiful country with beautiful people. It’s a country that has spent years recovering from decades of violence. And while it’s far from perfect, Colombia has come a long way. Through this World Cup the rest of the world was able get a small glimpse of this amazing country.
For me, these are the things I love about traveling. I was able to gain such a deep understanding of a country’s history and culture through something as seemingly superficial as football. It would have been unbelievable to experience the World Cup in Brazil. But, for me, Colombia was the best place I could have imagined being during this tournament. And I’m so happy I was able to experience team Colombia’s amazing World Cup performance right here in Colombia.
For a great documentary on the history of football in Colombia I suggest watching 30 for 30: The Two Escobars. It offers a great overview of football during the Pablo Escobar-era and a wonderful insight into the intersection of narco-traffickers and Colombian football.
How and where did you catch World Cup fever this year?