Growing up, my large size pretty much determined that I would play American football. I did so through middle and high school, except for two seasons during which I received no small amount of grief from coaches, other players and even some parents (a challenge on par with facing a stronger, more skilled player across the line of scrimmage). Our son Shane played through college, and I helped coach his brother Davis’s team for a couple of years. Living in Latin America introduced our family to futból: the boys played for two years in Mexico, largely oblivious the first year and catching on, both athletically and linguistically, the second.
My own experience on the cancha is limited, the physical dimensions that worked in myfavor for football acting as liabilities for futból (although I should note that my dean and friend at the Universidad de los Andes [UANDES], Juan Ignacio Brito, is not limited by his 6’8” frame). Other than a few friendly pick-up games with colleagues, my only experience prior to Chile was in Cuzco, Peru (elevation 11,200 ft.) when I was still in my 20s. Other than vague recollections of my abilities and oxygen levels being inadequate, my only vividmemory occurred while playing arquero (goalie): the ball, kicked hard from ten feet away, struck me squarely on the nose causing me to stagger back several steps and fall, to the hearty amusement of my fellow players. Fortunately, the kicker was about half my size—had it been Brito my nose would likely resemble an unskilled boxer’s.
My presence at UANDES and close friendship with Cristóbal Benavides, the organizer of faculty/admin futból games, offered me multiple helpings of humble pie. My lower-body coordination and ball control—if it could even be called that—remained as pitiful as 28 years prior. My shortness of breath was worse than in Cuzco, even though the Chileans played at around 9,000 feet lower elevation. Why, then, search ten stores in Greater Santiago to find size 13 botas, toe the line between severe and utter humiliation, and experience lasting pain in leg muscles I didn’t know existed? For the experience and camaraderie. Futból revealed competitive traits in my temperate hosts, Juan Ignacio and Cristóbal, and initiated my friendships with two other communication faculty, Juanjo Guerrero and Francisco Tagle. I’ve enjoyed the fellowship of team sports since childhood, and on the cancha it intensifies through the collective orientation that originally attracted me to Latin culture. The experience also deepened my appreciation for ice hockey players I’ve known who took up skating as adolescents or even adults—one has to love the game itself, the companionship and/or other facets of the sport to derive enjoyment and remain optimistic as more experienced players whiz around, controlling the puck, or in this case the pelota.
The Copa de Américas tournament, in which national teams face off, also combined fun with insight into Latin American culture. Sports news in Chile during the first half of 2016 was dominated by coverage of the player selection process for the national team, analysis of its struggles early in the tournament, and a crescendo of excitement as “La Roja” advanced, then defeated archrival Argentina in the championship game, decided by final penalty kicks, as had happened the year before. (I described a prior meeting between the teams in my “March 24, 2016” blog.)
Our Chilean family, the Benavides, and other dear friends, the von der Forsts, hosted Carol and me in their homes to watch the single-elimination games during the final rounds of the Copa. The atmosphere for each game was akin to the Super Bowl with media build-up, empty streets and what I’ll call “stressed festivity.” In our group, the tension was heightened through a close connection to the team: Lila Salah’s (von der Forst’s) father, Arturo Salah, is president of Chile’s Professional Soccer Association. He attended the Copa games in various U.S. cities and appeared on screen as medals were awarded to the victors. The Chilean fans’ celebrations were vigorous, especially for a society not known for expressing exuberance. But this was futból after all….
During the games, my friends and colleagues mentioned above commented in real time through a group on WhatsApp. The memes that circulated were quite clever and entertaining, often at the referees’ or opponents’ expense. My limited knowledge of the players, team politics and informal Chilean Spanish put me at a disadvantage, but my digital contributions were less awkward—as well as less painful for me, and probably others—than those on the cancha. On the morning following games the WhatsApp group, which includes another friend and colleague, Ricardo Leiva, met at a restaurant for breakfast and post-game discussion. My colleagues’ experience, not only as players but also journalists and media experts, added an analytical angle that likely differentiated our conversation somewhat from millions of others that occurred along the length of a vibrant nation basking in the warmth of victory.