I loved Brian's piece the other day regarding his World Cup fandom journey and thought I might share a little about my own. My World Cup fandom journey began in 1985, nine years before I saw my first World Cup game on TV.
I was sitting in the office of my Spanish teacher in East Quad, expressing my doubts about my ability to handle an 8 credit hour intensive pass/fail course that has been compared to giving a canary a drink with a firehose. My Chilean teacher didn't exactly let me cry on her shoulder. "It's not my job to give you 8 credits," she told me. "My job is to teach you Spanish. If you pass this course it will be because you read, write, speak and comprehend Spanish fluently. If that is your goal I will help you. If not, you should definitely look for another class."
I decided to drop the course, then decided not to. By the end of my freshman year I was fluent in Spanish and in love with the culture; staying in that class had changed the entire direction of my life.
Years later, in 1994, I had the opportunity to live in Bogotá, Colombia, as a missionary. It was a dream come true for me. My Spanish had already been solid when I arrived in Colombia; within 6 months I could understand the play-by-play during soccer telecasts and was cracking pun jokes in my second language.
January '94 seemed like an ideal time to arrive in Colombia. The country's worst era of narco-violence was receding and Colombia was gearing up for the World Cup. What a team they had! Loaded to the gills with star power. Part of their World Cup qualifying had been a 5-0 drubbing of hated soccer powerhouse Argentina - in Buenos Aires. The entire country was enamored with the greatest Colombian national team of all time.
And then it happened: el disastre del '94.
I remember watching the Colombia-U.S. match with around 40 kids from our church youth group. They were consoling me before the game had started. Sure, Colombia had unexpectedly imploded vs Romania, but this was the U.S.! An lopsided goleada was imminent. No big deal, I told myself. I can handle some good-natured teasing.
Then my friends all watched in horror as 26-year-old defender Andres Escobar sent an errant clearance into the Colombian net. A 2nd U.S. goal turned the party into a funeral. Colombia had been eliminated in group play...by the gringos.
I didn't rub it in that much. I just couldn't. It's hard to describe how devastated people were. Yet as impossible as it seemed after the match with the U.S., it was about to get worse.
I was on vacation in Cartagena when the news broke that Andres Escobar had been shot and killed in his native Medellin. I got on a public bus the next day and the faces of the people told the story: shock, disbelief, sadness, anger. Silence.
Watching the 30 for 30 episode The Two Escobars was an emotional experience for me. It really has taken Colombian soccer 20 years to recover from that traumatic event. The '98 team qualified but wasn't expected to do much, and they didn't. Colombia would then fail to qualify in '02, '06, and '10.
Meanwhile, U.S. soccer was on the rise. The surprising Americans stunned the world by giving eventual champion Brazil all they could handle before losing 1-0. I was torn between feeling proud of our guys and feeling awful for my friends, who cared so much more about the World Cup than I did and whose team was actually considered to have a chance to win the tournament.
My friends told me they would be getting revenge by proxy when the U.S. found themselves in the same group as Argentina for the '95 Copa America. Again, I readied myself for some ridicule. Then the U.S. went out and thumped the Argentines 3-0. Oddly enough, we went on to make the semi-final, lose, and then find ourselves in the consolation game...to face Colombia. Only a year after the infamous autogol match, the Colombians fired shot after shot on the American goal, winning 4-1. It was the expected goleada - one year too late.
I wound up living in Colombia for three years. I still love that place with everything within me, and I am still a fan of their national team. I am blessed to have a job for which I travel extensively in the Americas (I listened to Denard's 500+ yd game vs Notre Dame via internet radio while poolside in the Dominican Republic and watched UTL 1 from a hotel room in Havana). Colombia is a regular stop. I can't tell you how much fun it is to see the Colombians fall in love again.
20 years after the disastrous '94 World Cup, this Colombia side is finally exorcising the demons of their soccer past. They don't have the star power of the '94 team. All they do is win.
On the eve of a potentially epic soccer armageddon with Brazil, the Colombians have the confidence of knowing that there is no team in the tournament (France excepted) that is playing better than their team. The heat and humidity that has been wilting so many players and teams will not be a problem for the cafeteros. They play their home games in Barranquilla, just as hot and humid as anything Brazil has to offer.
So tomorrow I throw on my classic 1994 Andres Escobar jersey (#2) and take my wife and daughter to the home of Colombian friends here in Chicago. An Argentine friend is grilling the meat. We will join three or four Colombian families in screaming our lungs bloody and hoping against hope that the cafeteros will make soccer history by making the semis for the first time in their history. The Brazilians look vulnerable, the Colombians have the tournament's leading scorer so far, and everything seems possible again.
The ghosts of '94 are already gone; fresh -and hopefully glorious- memories wait to be made.