With some exceptions, Americans generally have the same beef with soccer: “nothing happens.” Despite having played the sport for some six years, I too was one of the naysayers. Like my father, I joined the ranks of college football fans. But only college.
College football was where all the excitement happened. As non-professionals, players are apt to make any number of blunders that could change the fate of a game in the time it takes you to refill your salsa bowl. Additionally, the stakes are different: these guys play for heart rather than the Benjamins.
In my rookie estimation, soccer lacked this flare of passion. So when the World Cup rolled around last year, I rolled my eyes. Nevertheless, lured by cold beer and a day wasted in front of the TV, I yielded. Much to my surprise (and embarrassment), I became an instant World Cup junkie tuning in to nearly every game to get my fix. In soccer, I had finally found my college football: not pro, but national.
Any sport can be boring until you find that certain pizazz and in soccer, it’s citizen pride and bragging rights. Blind to skin tone, dark histories and economic failures, the World Cup is a global playing field where the world’s metaphorical “losing” countries have a shot at being winners.
And if we look at teams like Brazil or France, it’s easy to see how this goes down on a smaller scale. Ethnicities and social backgrounds are thrown to the wayside in the name of winning. It helps societies integrate. Even Jerome Valcke, FIFA Secretary General, has said, “football (soccer) is a way for governments to bring people together.”
In Peru, soccer never managed to rally the all-consuming, time-enduring pandemic that seizes its Latin American counterparts. And the explanation as to why leads to a sort of chicken and the egg quandary: is it the team that blows or the country’s failure to back it?
When I was studying in Argentina six years ago, a Guatemalan-American classmate of mine went to see a local soccer match with Brazil. When I asked her how it went, she responded, “Kelly, I didn’t know whether I was at a soccer game or a KKK cross burning.” Bananas were thrown on the field amidst shouts of “monkeys go back to Africa.”
Not one of Argentina’s more glorious moments, but they’re not the only country that grapples with racism. In Peru, fans have been known to unleash similar wrath on their own teams when they fail to impress. Arguably, this kind of conditional support doesn’t exactly incite a huge motivation to please.
Living here, you don’t have to know much about local "fútbol" to know that it’s drawn across racial and class lines. Both players and fans tend to be from lower social rungs, far from the white minority that runs the country. Fans, known as “barristas,” have a particularly bad (though justly earned) reputation as anarchic gangs of free-flowing testosterone and adrenaline.
In other words, neither the sport nor the players have really been granted a place at the national dinner table. As a result, rather than serve as a remedy to social ills, soccer has been a haunting reflection of them.
Elected authorities also play a role in this. In fact, the Peruvian government has a track record for failing to nurture local talents. Many champion chess players have had to move abroad for funding and support. Even women’s boxing champion Kina Malpartida, who got her start in Australia, had to get over a serious initial road bump before receiving unadulterated love from her home country.
Now, as with Kina, it looks the tides are turning. Team Peru’s surprising entry to the semi-finals of this year’s Copa América has had the entire country rapt. As I walked down one of Lima’s bustling streets during the game last Tuesday, the only signs of life were the echoes of sports commentators and faint shadows of TV screens as newfound fans huddled together in silent suspense.
Though the loss to Uruguay was disappointing, it didn’t lead to an onslaught of rotten tomatoes. Peruvians, it seems, are ready to relinquish their heckling rights and embrace their soccer team, for better or for worse – yet another sign of the wildly infectious national pride that’s caught fire in recent years. Even so, the amazing 4-1 win against Venezuela to finish in third place has given the country something extra to celebrate this Independence Day, July 28th.
If you know Peru, you know that the past few decades haven’t been easy. Internal conflict, shamelessly corrupt politicians, tyranny, terrorism…there are well-justified reasons for bitterness, distrust or even a self-thrown pity party. But the country’s ability to shake off past woes with grace and maturity these past few years is – in general terms – pretty damn inspiring. Go Team Peru, carajo!