As the United States gears up for Super Bowl Sunday, I thought it would be a good time to provide a little taste of Colombia’s sport of choice – fútbol. We’re talking “fútbol,” the game with the round ball that you kick with your feet, as opposed to American “football,” the one with the pointy pigskin thing (is it really even a ball?) that you mostly touch with your hands, despite the name of the game (honestly, I have been confused by that ever since I was a kid).
Colombia is crazy for fútbol, and perhaps nowhere more so than Barranquilla. B/quilla – as I found out shortly after moving here – is where Colombia prefers to play the home games of its FIFA World Cup qualifying matches. Based on conversations I’ve had with locals – mostly taxi drivers, who are my dominant source for local news and information – this is for two reasons: 1) the past couple of times Colombia qualified for the World Cup, the home games were played in Barranquilla, so it’s considered good luck, and 2) it is so hot and humid here that it provides a home team advantage (I guess similar to, but certainly not as legendary as, the altitude advantage of Mexico’s Aztec Stadium in el D.F.). The game times – so I am told – are even chosen to maximize the sun’s effect on the visiting team.
Barranquilla does not hold back on game days, and if you live here, you are expected to take part. Even our 1-year-old son Marcello was sent home from preschool with a note instructing us to dress him in a Colombian jersey on the day of the World Cup qualifier against Uruguay (Colombia won!). Fortunately, such instruction is really unnecessary – the energy of game days is so contagious that it’s very difficult not to get caught up, whether you cared anything about soccer previously or not. Our neighborhood is home base for watching the game at bars, and the streets around us practically explode on game days with music, the yellow of the uniforms, and plenty of cheering. This video gives a little taste:
As a result of all this, I know a lot more now about the World Cup than I did before. Each continent (roughly) gets a certain number of slots. The country where the World Cup will actually be played automatically gets one of the slots for the area that it’s in. Since the 2014 FIFA World Cup will be played in Brazil, that’s one less slot for South America. Right now, Colombia is third place in the Round 1 Qualifiers in the region, which puts us in good stead. (Football fans, please comment with any corrections on how World Cup qualification works!)
Colombia’s strong standing worldwide and regionally marks the comeback in soccer of a team that has had its difficulties. Colombia’s World Cup heyday was in the early 1990’s, but the national team began to disintegrate after the infamous murder in 1994 of team captain Andrés Escobar (no relation to Pablo Escobar) for knocking the ball in for the United States. Andrés Escobar’s shooting death in Medellín shone the light on “Narco-Soccer,” the then-connection between soccer and Colombia’s drug lords (see the ESPN film, The Two Escobars), and served to temporarily derail Colombia’s attempts to revise its world image.
In the nearly two decades since, Colombia has come a very long way. The country is now on an upward trajectory by almost any measure. Even during the world economic downturn, the Colombian economy stayed relatively strong, and other countries – including the U.S., which recently signed the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (TPA) – have taken notice. Colombia’s GDP has grown at an annual average growth rate of 4.5% over the last decade. Security in tourist and business destinations is vastly improved, and crimes like kidnapping occur far less frequently than before. Unemployment is down and domestic demand continues to grow along with the educated middle class. As a result, Colombia is slowly but surely gaining its rightful place as a beautiful and interesting tourist destination and as fertile ground for business investors.
Colombia’s return to the World Cup will perhaps mark more than simply the resurgence of its soccer team. It will potentially be part and parcel of the country’s return to the World Stage – this time for all the right reasons. I know I’ll be rooting for the national team, every step of the way.