The Big Game

gameday

The color here is yellow. On Friday, everywhere I look, they’re selling neon jerseys. Flower vendors, traveling kiosk stands, the regular park entrepreneurs. I should have bought one.

A friend of mine reserved a group table at El Sitio, which I recently learned means simply: The Place. I like the name. Hey, you wanna get a few drinks, dance til dawn, decimate an ear drum or two? Let’s go to the place. Done.

But anyway, the matchup between Colombia and Chile was on Friday evening, and I wanted to be a part of it. Sports are not often so much my thing. If I have a team, it would be the Colorado Rockies, as they came into being when I just happened to be the right age to appreciate a downtown stadium and RBI stats. I think I was ten; it feels like about ten. My dad and I went to weekend games and I knew the lowdown on all those premier players: Andres Galaraga and Todd Helton and the whole bunch. And every year, I do dutifully fill out my March Madness bracket. I’ll forever love UConn for two reasons: 1) having the best study-abroad London cohort of cool kids, autumn of ’03 and 2) inexplicably winning the whole dang tournament three years ago, after I’d picked them on the sole basis of reason #1. Thanks UConn.

Apart from that, I don’t give a rat’s butt about sports (unless we’re talking Olympics: Womens: Gymnastics). But there was this seminal experience, also coming during that wonderful college semester in London, that helped me appreciate what sports can do. England was playing Australia for the World Cup in rugby, and this was the first time in ages they had half a chance at winning it. The game came on insanely early, as they were playing in Sydney. My friend Erin and I went to a local pub at 6:00 AM and the place was packed, mostly with middle-aged and elderly men, quietly sipping their pints and patiently awaiting kickoff (maybe that’s what you call it in rugby…). An hour or so later, and a few drinks in, and the place rocked with nervous energy and boundless hope. When England won, the whole bar exploded in exhilaration and childlike joy. People were chugging yardsticks on tables, draped in flags and singing national anthems. Thank G-d I was sober to take it all in. I’ve rarely felt so much a part of something greater than myself. It’s hard not to tear up with love for England when bespectacled old men are hugging you and basically wailing with thanksgiving themselves.

And since this Friday game between Colombia and Chile had the potential to guarantee Colombia a slot at the World Cup – they’ve been left out the past eight years – I felt it best to get out there and see for myself what patriotic fans here look like.

On first impression, they look like swarm of sunflowers. In Parque 93, a giant movie screen towered at the west end, bean bag chairs spread out around the park for mass enjoyment. The whole place was packed, end to end, everyone in amarillo. My friend told me I’d get robbed blind if I ventured in, but a crowd that size scares me off on its own. Very happily, I parked my tush at our reserved table in El Sitio, ordered a drink and watched the place slowly fill up (we’d arrived hours early, thinking the spot lost if we weren’t there to guard it. Colombians, even for the big game, remain committed to lateness).

Just before the game started, El Sitio’s band came onstage, sporting jerseys and colorful sombreros, thoroughly entertaining with traditional Colombian big band music. The lead singer is gold. His hips moves rival Shakira’s. Two or three songs, and the crowd is pumped.

ElSitio

The game begins. Not much happens for the first ten minutes. Then, Chile is granted a penalty kick. They get it. We’re losing. The Colombian guy next to me orders a bottle of Aguardiente, Colombia’s signature, smoothly delicious liquor. A minute or so later, and Chile scores another goal, one of those crazy breakaways that happens so fast, no one believes it. The Colombian guy takes a full shot, and pours another. Well before the first half ends, Chile scores yet again. How is this happening? I ask the air. No answer. The Colombian guy tells me the game is over. If Colombia scores two, Chile will put everyone on defense. I say something pat, like never say never. It sounds every bit as lazy, empty and ignorant as I feared it would. The Aguardiente gets scarcer.

At halftime, we go outside. Despite the depressing state of things,  Colombians look happy. They’re optimistic. They’re enjoying this, for what it is and what they hope it could be. And so am I.

Ten minutes into the second half, I head home. It’s getting dark and we’ve been recently exposed to the darker, violent side of the city. I’m walking and I’m alone, Colombia’s losing. It seems like the right time to go.

The sky is dark grey and the streets are abandoned. A car or two drive by on a major avenue that, at this 5:45 moment on any other weekday, would be stuffed – bumper to bumper style. Halfway home, eruptions of glee explode out of windows and parks. The extraordinary length and pitch of these screams tells me Colombia has scored. I smile, and then not more than a block later, another massive uproar of joy. Two goals?! In as many minutes? Incredible! I hurry home to watch the rest, but the little one is up. The baby has VIP status, so I miss the third, tying goal too. But I hear it.

By the time I get to a television, the game’s over. But the partying isn’t, as groups of Colombians begin singing together, their off-key, discordant harmonies filling our apartment with the jubilation of the unashamed. I ask why all the excitement over a tie? My husband informs me that a tie is as good as a win in this scenario. Colombia’s going to the World Cup. Initially, I’m thrilled too, and we both laugh and clap and hip-hooray it. Then, an hour later, we realize that no one has any intention of calming down. They sing and honk, on and on into the Saturday morning.

I check ESPN, the New York Times, the City Paper of Bogota for coverage of this epic win. Nothing. It’s all about Brazil and Europe. But you wouldn’t know that here. And I’m honored to have been a tiny part of all that elation and hope. I’ll be wearing yellow for gameday in 2014. Bring it Rio.