It might be 11am on a Tuesday in Lima, Bogotá or Buenos Aires, cities with populations pushing 10 million people. And yet you can drive down the main streets clear of traffic.
Sure, some people are obliged to be out – the buses and taxis continue to circulate – but all radios are tuned to the same channel. Every conversation starts off on the same topic. And when the commentator shouts out for a goooooool, horns beep and voices cheer together.
You can follow the score by just walking the streets and gauging the tone of anguished cries through windows. Restaurants feel like house parties, with people standing, drinking, mingling and facing the same screen.
When the World Cup is happening, for Latin America it may as well be the only thing happening. Election dates are adjusted and mooted national strikes are postponed.
Everyone stands behind “the selection” – the national team – but then each team can only go so far. Some drop out during the qualifying rounds, and many can’t make it far into the main event. Here enters the secret of América Latina’s love for the “Mundial”: the patria grande, América itself. Once la selección is “sent home”, everyone is immediately behind “the continent”.
I watched Argentina play Australia with my friends of many years here in Ecuador; there was not even a thought they would support Australia in solidarity. Ecuador was knocked out by Senegal, and immediately the nation became Argentinian and Brazilian.
If you actually pay attention to the play, the obsession becomes bewildering. Hour upon hour, tremendously talented athletes make conservative passes forward, sideways, forwards, backwards, backwards. After all, as long as they hold the ball, the other team can’t score.
So they exhaust themselves trotting about in two-hour matches with hardly a score. In this World Cup, there had been six nil-all draws by the quarter final stage, and nine games more in which the final score was 1-0.
And yet it’s as though the less content there is, the better the spectacle becomes. The tension builds. With every passing minute, each subsequent moment matters more. The players tighten up with nerves. The play becomes worse as the show becomes better. That one goal, which might finally come after 85 minutes of foreplay, validates the entire event.
In a sport where 22 players can struggle for so long and achieve nothing, a series of well-made touches ends up defining the match. What is it, then, that enabled that one player to do what everybody else failed at for so long?
And this is where the people make their idols. “Pure art, pure magic,” said the commentators after Neymar’s game-breaking goal for Brazil against Croatia in the quarter final. “Such brilliance! He rubbed his lamp and out flew his genie.” When Croatia equalised with four minutes of extra time remaining, commentators eulogised of heroes writing history and signing it onto golden pages.
Most often, the goal is a lucky break. A weary defender hands over the ball cheaply, then a shot on goal well-covered by the goalkeeper ricochets off a defender and goes in, or is accidentally kicked through someone’s legs.
But here in soccer country, it doesn’t matter. In fact, the sport itself hardly matters. It all comes down to the energy built up by hundreds of millions of eyeballs all focused on the one thing.
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Feature image courtesy of @sporlab via Unsplash.
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