Yellow Fever and Other Colorful Feelings
While this World Cup is proving to be an exceptional, generally we red-white-and-blue Americans err on bemused neutrality when it comes to the globally beloved sport. Soccer is boring, the games are long and uneventful, the players roll around theatrically at the slightest elbow love tap and Uncle Sam won’t stand for that. Oh, but our women’s team is good, right? And everyone played for at least a year by their tenth birthday, and there’s always the white kid or two from everyone’s hometown who plays in college. Soccer is a nice pastime, but it’s not really ours.
A few thousand kilometers south, things are different.
The World Cup has been a cloud of anticipation hovering over this country for the entire 2.5 years I’ve lived here but nothing could have prepared me for the mass of emotion and joy reverberating since the beginning of June. Last year’s erupting crowds in Barranquilla and around the country during qualifying matches was a glimpse as we battled our way to qualifying for the first time in sixteen years.
Sixteen years ago, Colombia was a notable mess of violence, corruption and conflict. The problems continue to haunt and destroy communities around the country, but it’s hard to recall in the wake of the exuberant patriotism that has been dubbed, tweeted and hashtagged Fiebre Amarilla, Yellow Fever.
There’s no preventative bed net for this Yellow Fever and certainly no cure. Symptoms present themselves on game days: Yellow, red, navy or white jerseys take to the streets. Being the Casa de la Selección (home to the national team stadium), Barranquilla may be the most patriotic of Colombian cities but the sea of yellow and complement colors floods buses, malls, schools and sidewalks throughout the country.
One of the most intriguing things about Colombian soccer culture is this all-encompassing patriotism. You can be nowhere near a TV but you know when the Tricolor scores because someone shouts and everyone else echoes – “GOOOOOOOOL!” “Gol? Gol??” “GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL!!!” People crowd around TVs to encourage and scold the players they see as sons, nephews and cousins. Everyone knows the players by name and even more so when they’re a hometown hero (I thought Barranquilla would melt in a puddle of pride when Teo scored against Greece.) In contrast I feel like the average American (can I call myself the average American?) knows Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey’s broken nose and that hot dude with dreads who makes me rethink my aversion to dreads.
Colombia vs. Ivory Coast after goal number 2:
Colombia has everything to be proud of this Cup. We collectively mourned Falcao’s torn ACL back in January and again in late May when he wasn’t called up for the Mundial, but the Selección is playing their hearts out. Meanwhile, the details are an overwhelming demonstration of the best of Colombia.
There’s the dancing. Oh my goodness the dancing. After nearly every goal, there’s a gleeful celebratory group dance that was clearly anticipated and rehearsed. The dances! Anyone can blow kisses at the crowd, cross themselves or cry upon scoring a World Cup goal but why not just dance?
There’s the way that James (“ha-mays”) Rodriguez is so incredibly talented and precious but has been feeding assists to his teammates at every given chance and then some. The kid is 22 years old and people (soccer people with real knowledge) are saying he could become the best player in the history of Colombian futbol, but he’s adorably crossing the ball across the net to his buddy even when he should probably pull the trigger himself. I still don’t understand why FIFA has a stupid cartoon armadillo as its 2014 mascot when you could be manufacturing stuffed animal James Rodriguezes by the million.
There’s the way that coach José Pekerman subbed in goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon with five minutes to go on Tuesday so he could officially be the oldest World Cup player in history. It was three days after Mondragon’s 43rd birthday and have I ever mentioned how much Colombians love birthdays? This may surpass all birthdays. I was watching crowded around the one Medellín airport TV streaming the game and people went wild when they saw what was happening – this guy has been through the sadder Cup appearances and deserved his five minutes more than anyone.
There’s the grounded faith and pride that Colombians have in their team. Everyone seems to be focused on the moment – no one is saying that Colombia will win x, y or z game but nojoda we are with them for all 90 minutes of the next one and we are so proud of what they’ve done up until now.
That may be why I wanted to write this now, when we’re still flying high off three consecutive, picturesque wins rather than waiting to see what happens. It doesn’t matter what happens from here. La Selección has shown the world a new side of Colombia and anyone who doesn’t have Yellow Fever already should seriously consider contracting it by Saturday afternoon. Colombia welcomes bandwagon fans. In fact, why don’t you visit my finca while you’re at it and we’ll split a bottle of guaro?