Thursday, May 19, 2016

For the Love of the Game

Over two years ago, when I received my official invitation to serve with the Peace Corps in Colombia, I knew that there was one thing that I was going to have to learn how to fake: a love for soccer. The immense popularity of this sport in this country is second to none. Life stops with the Colombian national team plays anyone. However, here on the coast, the real passion and enthusiasm comes for their local team, Junior.

Based out of Barranquilla and a member of the top Colombian professional soccer league, Categoria Primera A, this team has the ability to capture costeños all over the coast on game day. Serving as the main Caribbean team in its league, it’s not hard to identify Junioristas. Donning the red-and-white striped jersey, complete with a cartoon doll’s face on the back, fans either flock to the nearest television set or Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Meléndez, to catch the latest game.

Since my arrival here in Colombia, I have wanted to see a Junior game live and in-person. I have spent the last year and a half plus watching games on TV, while listening to my counterpart gripe over a loss and rejoice over a victory. Finally, the perfect opportunity presented itself. My neighbor, Jaime, and two of his cousins were heading to an upcoming game. He asked me if I wanted to come along and I jumped at the opportunity. Derek and I headed up to Barranquilla in preparation of the big game.

I never truly realized just how much soccer really means to Colombians until this experience. As Derek and I were trapped in horrible traffic on our way to the stadium, Jaime was continually blowing up my phone, wanting to know where we were. He was afraid of not being let into the stadium due to a misprint on our tickets (they said that the game started at 7 pm, instead of the correct time of 8 pm). This was my first clue as to just how important this game really was to him and his cousins.

When we finally arrived, we headed straight to a jersey vender so that we could purchase the much coveted red-and-white apparel. Now that Derek and I looked the part of die-hard Junior fans, it was time to enter the stadium. You could feel the excitement for the match mounting as we neared the entrances. Our seats were on the south side of the stadium. When I had informed my counterpart that I was attending a Junior game finally, she gave me one piece of advice: avoid the south side of the stadium! I quickly realized why she offered me this warning.

Sitting in the second level, we had a perfect view of the field. With one of the goals directly in front of us, I really couldn’t have asked for better seats. Directly below us were the insane, ride-or-die fans that did not sit down the entire match. Complete with a band consisting of trumpets, clarinets, saxophones, and enough drums to wake the dead, they cheered and sang through the entire match, never once stopping. Heck, they even sang and danced through the Colombian national anthem!

The game itself was fast paced and really entertaining. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait too long for the first goal. About 5 minutes in, one of the Junior players lofted a perfectly placed kick just over the outstretched hands of the opposing goalie. The stadium, which ended up being about 75% full, erupted in an euphoria of cheers, screams, and dances. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before. The passion of these Colombian soccer fans far outshines that of those matches and I attended in South Korea. The best part about the goal was that it happened right in front of us! Bonus!

Junior would score one more time before the end of the first half and went into halftime up 2-0. But the excitement and entertainment didn’t stop there. Down below us, a few of the “crazies” got a little too rowdy. An entire section cleared out in a matter of seconds as police in riot gear descended upon the assailants. As that was getting sorted out, a former Junior player, who was apparently just amazing, suddenly appeared in the crowd. This appearance caused the entire upper deck where we were sitting to rush forward to the front of the balcony and lean over to get a look at this dude. However, they failed to take into account the humans that were already occupying this space, mainly Derek and myself. I’m just super happy that I didn’t crack a hip or a rib.

With the start of the second half, order was restored to the stadium as everyone settled in for another 45 action packed minutes of soccer. Despite the lack of more goals, the ferocity of the players did not disappoint. The tenacity in the stands was also an eye opening experience. With every near goal or poor pass, I was instantly surrounded by sighs, shouts, and exclamations of disbelief. This astute attention to the game and every detail just further proved to me that these are some of the most dedicated soccer fans on the planet.

The game ended with Junior in front by the same 2-0 score. Happy red-and-white fans slowly filed out of the stadium, eager to celebrate the latest victory with a cold one and some street food. This first Junior experience was an amazing one that I will not soon forget. I absolutely cannot wait for the next opportunity to cheer them on!

Ready to cheer on Junior to a win!
The "crazies"ready to go!
Look close and you'll see cops in riot gear (they're wearing the bright green vests)
Captivated by the action...
Celebrating a Junior win!!