I had never witnessed a more beautiful scene in my life. The red and white shades colored every shop and restaurant around me. The coastal night sky boomed with fireworks as the moonlight shone on the pristine waters of Larcomar, a shopping centre in the district of Miraflores, Peru. The televisions around me displayed images of the parades all across my beautiful country as proud Peruvians everywhere prepared for Peru’s debut at the 2018 World Cup.
At a ceviche restaurant on June 5, the eve of the biggest sports game of my life, a childhood dream of mine came true; my nation would see their national fútbol team play at the FIFA World Cup for the first time since 1970. Across Latin America, from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro to Mexico City, the dreams and hopes of over a billion people would rest at the kick of a ball. At the World Cup, the greatest sports spectacle in the world, Latin America would witness the most important matches of the sport that symbolizes not just a game, but a way of life and culture which becomes ingrained in the heart at birth.
For many people in Latin America, a greater honor does not exist than to wear your country’s jersey on the pitch at a World Cup. Latin America itself has a rich footballing history which has produced many legends of the game such as Pele, Diego Maradona, Ronaldo Nazario, and arguably the greatest footballer to ever play the “beautiful game,” Lionel Messi. (For those of you wondering, YES, Messi is a more complete and better footballer than Cristiano Ronaldo, but that is a topic for another day).
The World Cup itself was born in South America, with Uruguay defeating Argentina 4-2 in the final to claim victory at the inaugural World Cup, which took place in Uruguay in 1930. Since then, South American countries have won eight more World Cups and produced many more teams which have dazzled and enamored fans across the world. In South America, however, the task of qualifying for the World Cup is a four-year odyssey unlike any other in the world.
The ten nations (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela) that comprise the South American Football Association, CONMEBOL, compete in a round-robin home and away competition where only four countries can directly qualify and one additional must go into an intercontinental playoff. This arduous journey can bring the warriors who undertake it from the tropical air of the Maracanã in Brazil to the blistering Barranquilla sun of “El Metro” in Colombia to even as far up as the dreaded heights of Estadio Hernando Siles in La Paz, Bolivia (11,932 feet above sea level in altitude—yikes). On October 8, Peru and Paraguay kicked off the World Cup 2022 qualifiers, a new chapter which will no doubt bring the same passion, musical fanaticism, tears, anguish, joy and unrivaled emotions as the last one.
I have, unfortunately, often received criticism for my fútbol fanaticism from the “soccer hater” brigade, individuals who often reek of cheap beer, borderline-racist elitism and fragile masculinity. Such examples include: “But Carlos! How can you watch such a boring sport where 22 dudes just kick around a ball?”, “Dude, it is just a goal, how can you be THIS excited?”, “All these sissies do is dive and complain, go watch a real sport!” If the sport is not for you, then that is completely understandable, but if you constantly hate on the sport to flex your superiority complex, then your ignorance masquerading as arrogance cannot be helped. You truly do not get it.
Fútbol is part of my culture, my identity and, most importantly, my life. I have played and watched the game since I was a child; it has created some of the most joyful and heartbreaking memories of my life. I cannot accurately describe the sheer emotion of watching my team score a goal, or even the one of receiving the jersey of one of my favorite players. The way this sport unites and inspires the world amazes me, and the World Cup serves as the greatest example of this. The mass appeal of the sport goes beyond the pitch, where historic rivalries such as Barcelona versus Real Madrid, Manchester United versus Liverpool, and Italy versus France form part of a much larger story boiled down into a 90-minute competition. The plight of the United States women’s team, for example, serves as an example of a larger fight against sexism and inequity. To my reader, I sincerely encourage you to watch and keep up with the fútbol world because it will widen your horizons more than you can expect. In a college where we are constantly challenged to seek the “common good” and be “intellectually fearless,” we would be remiss not to pay attention to the most influential sport in the world.