Imagine being in the stands, as the team that you have been following your whole life is about to play one of its most important games in soccer history. It’s not just any game. It’s the last group-stage match and it’s a must-win; otherwise your team goes home.
Your mind is racing and you can’t stop thinking about the fact that they have to win. The other team is in the same position so they’re giving it their all. The minutes go by but there are no goals. When the first half is over, the score remains 0-0. During the second half, your team begins to find its rhythm. The midfielders gain possession and begin to create attacking opportunities. You’re excited because you know that at any moment they can score and qualify to the next round. Then, they score! A perfect cross from the corner and your tallest defender puts it in with a brutal header. You’re hugging strangers around you, jumping with joy, chanting for your team.
For me, it was Colombia. My passion for the team is immense and I was lucky to attend their last group-stage match in the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
The World Cup is the biggest soccer tournament, and the most popular sporting event, in the world. It’s held every four years in a different host nation, chosen each time through an exhaustive ballot system. Each World Cup starts with 32 participating teams representing their countries, who’ve earned their spots through the World Cup Qualifiers, tournaments within five World Cup qualifier confederations, of which a limited number of teams can progress. So it only includes the best teams in the world, who’ve already worked extremely hard to qualify. Once they’re there, the teams battle to the end, hoping to come out as champions of the world.
I can’t begin to describe what the World Cup means to me. Ever since I was a little boy I would watch the World Cups with my dad. It was always bittersweet because Colombia went over a decade unable to qualify between the 1998 and 2014 World Cups. But they’ve since become top contenders, qualifying for the tournament twice consecutively, and, with hard work, landing historic results.
I’d been toying around with the idea of going to this year’s World Cup in Russia (the first one ever in Eastern Europe) for a while. So when a friend of mine who travels a lot said he would come with me, we applied for tickets to see Colombia vs Senegal around 6 months before the game. Why Colombia vs. Senegal? It was a risk because if Colombia lost the first two matches, that game wouldn’t mean anything. But if they won and lost their first two games, it would become a must win, nail biting game (which is exactly what happened)! As soon as we heard back from FIFA around March that they’d accepted our ticket application, we booked our flights.
Even though the game was in the southwestern city of Samara, we didn’t want to travel to Russia and not see Moscow. So we flew there first and stayed a few days, visiting the Red Square and getting to know the city, before heading on to attend the game.
I already knew that the World Cup was one of the biggest sporting events on the planet, with a majority of the population tuning into this one tournament every four years, but I had no idea how much it unites people from all over the world. I shared remarkable experiences with people with whom I didn’t even share the same language. We communicated with smiles, high-fives, and just pure joy. I sat amongst fans for other countries and I helped cheer on their team. And Colombians received that same support. We celebrated wins together, just because it made us happy to see each other happy. At the end of the day, the tournament is all about sharing joy with others no matter the culture or language barriers.
I learned that people could, in fact, put aside politics, religion, and any other differences. In the FIFA Fan Zone in Moscow (where fans could unite and watch games together on a big screen), I saw Russian, Senegalese, and Japanese fans celebrating together after a 2-2 draw between the Senegal and Japan teams. They smiled while discussed the game, told each other that their teams had played well, and they shared drinks as they prepared for the next game to come on.
After Colombia beat Poland 3-0, my friend and I wanted to celebrate. We heard Latin music coming from a bar next to where we were staying in Samara, which seemed like a sign. As we walked, still wearing our Colombia jerseys, we were greeted by Russians joyfully chanting, “Colombia!! Colombia!!”
I also learned that people go through things you wouldn’t imagine to see their teams play in person. I met an Argentinean who began his journey to Russia on a bike, working random jobs in different countries to survive and save up for the big event. It took him three years! His dedication to his country’s team was like no other I had ever seen before. Everyone’s story is different and it puts into perspective how lucky one is to be there.
Although Colombia didn’t make it past the second round, I feel blessed to have been able to attend the World Cup and watch my team in person. I shared an indescribable feeling with strangers who were there with the same hope and checked a big item off my bucket list.
If you’re planning on going to a World Cup, know this: You will have a great time and you will learn about the cultures that make up the tournament.
Just be open to sharing drinks with people you have nothing in common with, because without realizing it, you will connect through the greatest feeling. Passion. And that is the passion for the sport, one’s country, and life…the passion that everyone around you will have.
That’s s why the World Cup is more than just a soccer tournament and is the greatest sporting event on the planet.
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