Schumann Brothers Grant for Written Expression
Juan Saldaña, Will Rice ‘18
The day after Colombia lost a heartbreaking penalty shootout to England in the knockout stage of the World Cup, I mentioned to a friend that I had teared up during the defeat the night before.
“But how does that even affect your life,” she texted back.
Frustrated at her lack of understanding and dejected from my country’s loss, I didn’t answer. “What do you mean HOW does it affect my life,” I indignantly thought in my half-made hostel bed – still wearing a wrinkled yellow jersey.
I didn’t watch the tournament for a few days. I found myself unable to look at the TV without the gut punch reminder of that final penalty miss. I almost longed for the days of my childhood where the Colombian team consistently failed to qualify.
Soon enough, however, I found myself sneaking glances at the TV. Glances turned into full games and the beauty of the World Cup captivated me again. Maybe my friend was right? Regardless, I’m still angry at that text.
I met a Peruvian in a line in to enter the Kremlin in Moscow. It was his last day in Russia, and by that point Peru had been eliminated from the tournament. However, he was the most upbeat person I’d met throughout my Russia trip. He had a constant grin that not even the eternal queue and stern looks from passing soldiers could take away.
He had been to Peru’s first two games. The first was in the remote town of Saransk and the second in eastern city of Yekaterinburg. Both had been losses, a devastating one to Denmark, and the second an expected defeat at the hands of eventual-champions France.
This was Peru’s first appearance in a World Cup in 36 years. The country qualified through a stroke of luck and was still riding the high – even past elimination.
The Peruvian man entertained us and himself in the line as he recounted adventures and memories. He talked about growing up when Peru last made a World Cup and waiting decades for the chance to see la blanquirroja in person at the biggest stage. He talked about the energy in the stadium that made Peru the home crowd in a tiny Russian city. Then, he casually mentioned the emergency landing that his plane had to make after a turbine had caught on fire.
The charter plane full of Peruvians managed to land in time and safely to watch the game. For him, the journey was irrelevant – he glossed over it only to mention the relief of a hundred Peruvians as they managed to see their team play.
It reminded me of another phrase I heard more than one fan utter throughout my time in Russia: “I can die happy now.”
I might have been the only person in that stadium to not Snapchat the Colombian national anthem as it echoed in the stands of the Mordovia Arena under a blinding sun.
I’m not claiming to be above showcasing my life on social media – but for once the urge was just not there. This trip to Russia, that game, and that moment was not for sharing – it was not for posting on a Snapchat story or a finely crafted Instagram post. It was not for subtly showing off how cool my summer experience was – it was for me, in that moment, realizing how lucky I was to have a dream come true.
The first notes rang across the stadium and the chorus of Colombians started screaming the lyrics.
Oh, gloria inmarcesible!
¡Oh, júbilo inmortal! En surcos de dolores, el bien germina ya.
Cesó la horrible noche. La libertad sublime
derrama las auroras de su invencible luz. La humanidad entera,
que entre cadenas gime, comprende las palabras del que murió en La Cruz
I screamed those words unlike I ever had before. It took two days for my voice to come back. I can’t blame it all on the anthem though; after all, there was a full 90 minutes of yelling obscenities at the referee that may be slightly culpable.
A large Russian man snored next to me on the ride to Saransk. Pull out a map and you’ll realize that this town would define the phrase “in the middle of nowhere.” When I arrived at 6:00 a.m., after a 12-hour train ride, I wondered if I was the first Colombian to ever step foot in this place. Then I entered the train station and ran into thousands of yellow shirts and merengue on a speaker. I guess a few might have beat me to that honor.
I can opine for hours about how a small city with no hotels or infrastructure should not be hosting a match at the highest level of soccer play. The train rides were brutal, and the town was not prepared. Yet, the hospitality and smiles of the citizens of Saransk as 40,000 Colombians in yellow descended upon their town of 300,000, makes me unable to complain too much.
The ride back though – for 12 more hours, leaving at 3 a.m. – don’t even get me started.
I came really close to figuring out the Russian alphabet. Now, I’m not saying I understand even the vaguest semblance of the Russian language, but I spent a lot of time simply staring at the words.
My mother is a linguist, and from there I get the gift and curse of being overly conscious of language around me. In Russia, it started when I saw the most recognizable word in the world: Макдоналдс. Right, you know, the golden arches of Макдоналдс?
Now I knew Russia would be a different experience, but this struck a slightly different chord in me. McDonald’s is the most emblematic food icon in the world and my brain could simply not register it in another alphabet. So I just stared at it – for a long time. К is the clacking c noise, д is a d, н is an n, л is an l, and a c is an s. Yup – makes perfect sense: McDonald’s.
We started doing this everywhere – coming to our biggest breakthrough when we realized stop signs also literally said “stop” – not a translated version of the word, but “стоп;” literally the English word, written in Cyrillic letters.
If this doesn’t exemplify how much I’m my mother’s son, nothing does.
When I visit Colombia, people immediately know I’m from Bogota – my accent gives me away. This isn’t just me showing off my Spanish skills – it is actually relevant to this story. Thing is, Colombia is an incredibly regionally divided country. The U.S. may have states and Texas might swear they’re God’s greatest gift to the earth, but none of this compares to the strong regional ties of Colombia.
Paisas live in the mountains near Medellin – even I can’t understand half the words they say and people from Bogota, Cachacos, definitely look down on them a bit. But Medellin is a thriving city with a functional metro and a below average amount of corruption while Bogota is a traffic- ridden urban disaster of 12 million people – so maybe we should calm down the elitism.
Costeños live on the coast and are known for their vibrant culture – best expressed through music and dancing. Life moves a little slower on the coast.
For generations, regionalism was the main division in the country. It expressed itself politically and socially but even though the country was victim to violence and tragedy, politics was still a friendly conversation at the dinner table.
Over the past few years, amidst rising inequality and corruption, Colombia has fallen into the same trap as the rest of the world – increasing polarization and political animosity. The country had the chance to vote on ending a 50 yearlong war with the armed guerilla group, the FARC and against all odds voted against it. The presidential election runoff pitted a far-left populist who refused to call Venezuela’s government a dictatorship and a far-right critic of the peace process most closely aligned with an ex-president on trial for bribery and corruption.
All this to say, Colombia is divided like never before. Regionalism and classism seeps into the conversation. It’s not just right vs. left, but rich vs. poor and rural against urban.
But, amidst politics at their worst, Colombia finds itself with their best soccer team in a generation. When la selección takes the field, there’s not more conflict for a fleeting moment and we are all proud beyond comprehension at the meaning of being Colombian.
I’ve always said that no one lives soccer like we do in Latin America. Most of the world may be obsessed with the sport, but it simply does not compare to the way Latinos feel about it.
However, there is one close second place on the fandom list – the English.
England’s history with soccer is truly difficult. The country is obsessed with the beautiful game, yet rarely find themselves on the winning end of a tournament. World cup after world cup, teams of immense talent disappoint a nation that lives and dies by their successes and failures.
Here they found themselves, playing a grueling 120-minute match against Colombia for the chance to advance in the tournament. I’ve always said that I couldn’t imagine anything more stressful than watching my country in a World Cup penalty match, but I cannot even imagine how it is for the English. There is not an Englishman who is not still traumatized by the three penalty shootout losses in their history.
I left that day cursing England and everything associated with them. I felt robbed, but truth be told, that country couldn’t handle another soccer heartbreak.
Andres Escobar was shot and killed after scoring an own goal during the 1994 World Cup. It’s rare that a soccer story transcends the barriers of the sports section and became the news story of the year. This tragedy, orchestrated by an angry gambler and drug cartel leader, haunts Colombians to this day. It was the best team Colombia had fielded. It was a young player about to sign his first big contract. And in the most Colombian fashion possible, it had all been brought down by criminality, corruption, and drugs.
I’m not going to tell you the whole story, it’s too sad and too long – but it is necessary context to understand the perpetual stormy cloud that hangs over Colombian fandom.
I don’t think I’d ever seen so many adults cry in such a concentrated location. It felt like an awkward funeral in which everyone was wearing yellow. While around 2,000 Japanese fans cheered in the remote city of Saransk, 40,000 Colombians stared at the pitch in disbelief.
We’d made this entire trip to a place that probably no Colombian had before, believing we would have an easy path to victory. Then, with a 5th minute red card and penalty goal, the enthusiasm of the first touch ended and we lost a game we never imagined would not go our way.
A creepy silence overtook the stadium as the final whistle blew as we all stared at each other, frightened for what this loss would mean for the team and for the country.
I was in the Red Square the day Brazilians took it over. It’s a truly uncanny feeling to be surrounded in the most stereotypically Russian place in the world. Lenin’s mausoleum on one side, the Kremlin’s maroon brick walls on the other, and 40 Brazilians screaming their anthem and waving their highlighter flags.
I have to admit I failed. I sought to explain fandom and am leaving with more questions about it. I sought to understand my own relationship to my home country and I’ve grown even more confused.
I thought I knew what fandom was, I thought I exemplified it – I was traveling across the world to see my team. Then I met a Colombian man who sold his car to be able to lose his voice in Russia. Then I heard of a Peruvian family who mortgaged their house to book their plane tickets to Moscow.
I was naïve in thinking I could fit fandom into some logical theory of human behavior. Oh well – another excuse to be back in 2022.