My love affair with soccer is an unexpected one. I grew up in Panamá, better known for producing Major League Baseball players, like Mariano Rivera, Rubén Tejada, Rodney Carew, Juan Berenguer, Roberto Kelly, Manny Sanguillén…I could go on and on. I truly enjoy a good game of baseball, especially when one of my paisanos is playing. I have been to MLB games and support the Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago Cubs. I have the t-shirts, hats, and stuffed Raymond (mascot) doll. Oh, he’s incredibly cute and physically leaped into my arms during one of the final games of the inaugural season. (The little stuffed Raymond, not the bigger-than-life dancing Raymond. Although, he’s a sight to behold, in person).
How does a woman from a small country known for “Los Reyes del Béisbol,” where soccer was merely a footnote at the end of a sportscast, become a soccer fan? It’s my father’s fault.
I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the World Cup. My father gets full credit for instilling in me the passion for the game, especially Argentina fútbol, at an early age. I distinctly remember crying, sobbing really, when Argentina beat Peru 6-0, in the second round of the 1978 World Cup. This marked their first trip to a World Cup final against the seemingly unstoppable “Clockwork Orange,” Netherlands. Argentina won their first World Cup title and I was forever hooked. I don’t simply watch soccer matches – I live, mourn and rejoice in them.
It doesn’t hurt that the many of the players are very good looking. Who doesn’t love a man with the stamina to run, at full-speed, for 90 minutes. If he can do that….well, he might be “fun” to have around, right?
When I moved to the United States permanently, it became difficult to follow soccer. I could not understand how, in a country built by immigrants, who grew up and played soccer, there were no professional teams or at least coverage of international teams. I was lucky to move to Tampa Bay Rowdies, and later Tampa Bay Mutiny, territory, but h teams went out of business, due to poor support and attendance. Still, I found the late night coverage on ESPN, after the “World’s Strongest Man Caber Toss Extravaganza” and the “Dogs Playing Poker” tournaments.
When the USA hosted the World Cup, I thought, “a-ha! This is what USA Soccer needs!” Our boys played well, but not well enough, apparently. Those elusive fans went elsewhere. (Damn you to HELL, Nascar! Watching cars drive around in a circle is not sport, it’s traffic!). At the same time, soccer passion was exploding in Africa and Asia, such that Les Lions Indomptables (The Indomitable Lions) of Cameroon, where they were a huge draw everywhere they went. It didn’t hurt that they could play the game well, lyrically, actually.
Even though I have never been there, South Africa, holds a mystical appeal to me. Perhaps it was because I watched so many documentaries on the struggles of black Africans and could not understand why they continued to live a repressed, slave-like existence. The more I learned about Africa, the more I wanted to know. I distinctly remember being touched by Peter Gabriel’s song “Biko,” about Steven Bantu Biko. Biko, an anti-apartheid activist who founded the Black Consciousness Movement, was murdered in police custody. Around the same time, Little Steven Van Zandt and Artists United Against Apartheid, released “Sun City,” about a white’s-only resort in South Africa, and their call for a boycott of this place. The video got heavy airplay on MTV (back when they actually played MUSIC). African artists started to release their music and when Paul Simon featured Ladysmith Black Mambazo, on his album “Graceland,” I was entranced. How did they produce such joyful noise?
Almost 25 years later, my favorite sport arrives in Africa. The beautifully talented, Colombian superstar, Shakira and Freshlyground, from Africa, record the theme song, “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa). Zumba Fitness encourages Zumba instructors all over the world to create original choreography, and post it to youtube, using “Waka Waka.” (I’ve created choreography and have done the routine a couple of times with my students, but refuse to record and post it to youtube. Not my cuppa tea).
Some of my expectations for this World Cup have already been exceeded. The Cup was 98% sold out, before the Opening Ceremony and Opening Game. It is being held on the continent that needs the most care, love and support from the world community. Every time the light is shined on Africa during these next few weeks, positive, joyful energy will be radiated back to us from the African people. There is a reason the World’s game is being held in Africa – to bring us closer together. Our challenge begins after the Cup is over and the fans have gone home. Our challenge is to remember Africa, because in remembering Africa, we remember our own humanity.
As for me, I’ll be glued to the television, humming “Waka Waka,” screaming obscenities at referees and players, teaching my husband creative phrases in Spanish and Spanglish and rooting for Team USA and my beloved Albiceleste, Argentina, who will be the first to win a World Cup on African soil.