Colombia is Excited by Their World Cup Qualifications (Oh, and Some Other Sports, Too)

¡Gol Colombia!

With those words, and a tie with Chile, the Colombian National Soccer Team qualified October 11 for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The goal came as striker Falcao hit his second penalty shot of the game to tie it and propel the soccer-loving nation into the most-watched sports championships in the world.

Colombians do love their soccer (or, as everyone else says, Colombians do love their football).

In a third grade class in the small town in Colombia where I taught, one of the English teachers in my town was teaching a song that included the word “god” for the school’s English Week, and asked her students if anyone knew what that meant.  One energetic third-grader replied by putting his arms up high over his head in a show of triumph and shouting “¡GOOOOOOOLLLL!”

Who can fault him confusing the two?  Catholicism might be the official religion but Colombia’s (and the world’s) favorite sport easily has more followers.

Boys and girls alike play soccer in the streets and in open fields. Every Colombian city, town, and tiny village I went to had at least one concrete cancha with a goal at each end. I often saw jerseys from teams from Spain and England on the streets (along with jerseys from Colombian clubs and the bright yellow of Colombia’s national team, Los Cafeteros). The Colombian soda company Big Cola had pictures of the Barcelona team on its labels.

Let’s say it was a good thing I liked and followed soccer—I think I won a few points from my students by knowing a few players besides Lionel Messi (Colombian stars Falcao and James Rodriguez are certainly on that list).

In the rural community of Santa Ana where I lived, kids and young men played at the small concrete cancha (very painful) at school or at the much-larger dirt sports field. Whether they were just pick-up scrambles or organized matches (there were teams of middle schoolers, high schoolers, and men in their twenties), soccer was some of the only entertainment Santa Ana offered outside drinking and parties, and families could sit in the bleachers and watch the young men of the town kick around a soccer ball.

Colombia hadn’t qualified for a World Cup since 1998 and hasn’t made a splash at the world level since the 1994 World Cup, where they went in as the top-ranked team (they had only lost one game in the thirty-four games leading to the World Cup). However, the 1994 competition was marred when the team received death threats prior to their matches from people linked to Colombian drug cartels, which may have been the reason they did not advance out of the group stage. Star striker and captain, Andrés Escobar, scored an own goal against the United States, solidifying Colombia’s failure at the competition. Upon his return to Colombia, Escobar (no relation to Pablo Escobar) was murdered, allegedly because of Colombia’s loss (see the documentary The Two Escobars for an excellent look at this story).

One of Colombia’s tourist slogans is “Colombia is Passion,” and Colombians are passionate about their sports.

In Cartagena and other parts of Colombia’s Caribbean, baseball is popular and cable channels regularly broadcast Major League Baseball games in both English and Spanish (there are a few Colombian MLB players as well, including the 2010 World Series MVP, Edgar Rentería). As previous written about on this blog, cycling is also popular throughout Colombia; Colombia won three cycling medals in the 2012 Olympics and Colombian Nairo Quintana finished runner-up in the 2013 Tour de France.

Then there is tejo, which has been played in Colombia for over 450 years and is sort of like horseshoes, but played with metal discs thrown at gunpowder targets that explode when hit. Luckily, it isn’t a contact sport, except in the cases when the losing team decides they don’t like the outcome (tejo is always accompanied by both teams drinking copious amounts of alcohol, which adds another interesting dynamic to the game).

But in reality, no sport in Colombia could compete in popularity with fútbol.

Whenever Los Cafeteros play a game, all over the country Colombians crowd around fuzzy televisions to cheer on their team dressed in national colors: their large yellow jerseys, blue shorts, and red socks, made the players themselves into human representatives of the tri-colored Colombian flag.  Collective cheers or groans would erupt from entire towns whenever a goal was scored. 

And as Falcao’s goal hit the back of the net, capping a comeback from the 0-3 deficit, I can imagine the entire country cheered the loudest they had in many years. Think Colombians were excited? Check out some photos from Cartagena after the goal and qualification (selección) and the headline below.

Universal Seleccion
Cartagena’s main newspaper is excited by Colombia’s qualification to the 2014 World Cup.

Colombia is currently ranked 5th in the FIFA rankings – watch out Brazil, watch out world. Los Cafeteros would like nothing more to make soccer the first thing the world thinks of when they think of Colombia.

Read more details from the Colombia-Chile match here.

Note: This post contains pieces from my book out this winter.

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