The Olympics When Your National Team Sucks
I had spent most of my life jumping from one hemisphere from another to avoid winter, but love makes you do crazy things. That's how, on the first week of December of 2009, I found myself in New York City's Lower East Side, seated half-frozen on a barstool next to a man who'd captured my heart. He was a New Yorker through and through, the kind that scoffs at clever city guides, takes you to places you would never find otherwise, and makes you see a city not as a place, but as a character.
To this day I'm not sure whether catching the game between the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys that Sunday was part of the tour, or whether he simply wanted to take advantage of the fact that he was home for a game. Possibly, it was a combination of both.
I've never really understood American football, but I was immediately drawn in by the enthusiasm of the people around us. Men and women of all walks and ages sat around, eyes on the screen, following every movement, every one different from the person beside them, yet everyone the same in their devotion to their team. There was not a single person in that bar cheering for Dallas: each move furthering the Giants was met with equal exhilaration and each one setting the home team back received a resounding chorus of dismay.
I had never felt such feeling of belonging among any group of people quite like this before. Up until that point, I had never encountered pride and loyalty in such real, palpable form. The Giants' victory that day transformed everyone in that bar, without displacing anything in their lives. I had never felt more envious than I did then, looking around me at all the people who had followed their team through the ups and downs of the season to see them take down the division-leading Cowboys. There was laughing and hugging like these fans were survivors of an impossible struggle who'd come out triumphant. I suppose that in a sense, they were.
Victory was palpable -- and it didn't dissipate after we left the bar. The experience made me aware of the song that pounds down every avenue and boulevard of a city after a sports victory, a song that can only be heard with the heart. That night was one of the most intense, memorable experiences I have ever had as an adult and yet, despite the fact that I was there that night and aware of the victory and the subsequent joy, the moment wasn't mine. The Giants were the team I had hoped would win, but they weren't my team. Their victory wasn't my song.
I was born in Peru but my family moved to a United States commonwealth when I was a child. As a commonwealth, we were a part of the United States, but had no affiliation with any of the teams that played in the professional sports leagues. As a result, as far as sports were concerned, I defaulted to the one sport I had always known: soccer. The United States had been one of the earliest members of FIFA, it's true, but the fact that no American team had ever risen to popularity until the Brazilian soccer legend Pelé joined the New York Cosmos in 1975 contributed to the notion that Americans just don't jogam bonito.
And so Peru it was.
Peru’s national team training for the 2014 World Cup.
Photo by Paolo Aguilar for EFE and ZUMAPRESS.com
Because we were so far away, there was no way for us to keep up with Peruvian local teams. Even the Copa America, the cup among the South American FIFA confederation of soccer teams, didn't draw enough attention out in that little Pacific archipelago to merit much news coverage. The only opportunity we really had to watch Peru play was during the World Cup.
It was difficult to feel proud of Peru.
It had not always been like this. Peru, which had finally created a national team in 1927 after years of unorganized playing and internal conflict, enjoyed a golden era in the 1930s. The Blanquirroja -- the "white and red," as the team is known -- played at the inaugural 1930 FIFA World Cup, impressing other nations with their skill. They joined members from their traditional rival, Chile, in 1933 to form the Combinado del Pacífico ("All-Pacific" team), playing 39 games and launching the striker Teodoro "Lolo" Fernández Meyzán into world renown.
In 1936, la Blanquirroja kicked off the Berlin Olympics by pulverizing Finland and moved on to defeat Austria, though the International Olympic Committee nullified the result after allegations arose that the Peruvian team had manhandled members of the Austrian team. The IOC ordered a rematch and Peru forfeited the games in protest. The International Federation of Football History & Statistics continues to condemn the manner that the Peruvian team was treated at these games.
Despite the setback, in 1938 Peru won an international title at the first Juegos Deportivos Bolivarianos, an event organized to honor Simon Bolivar, a key figure in Latin America's struggle for independence from Spanish control. Peru beat Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela and moved on to win the 15th South American Championship (which would eventually become the Copa America).
La Blanquirroja would not win another international title until the 1947 Bolivarian Games, but nevertheless were regarded as one of the top 20 teams by the World Football Elo Rankings well into the 1950s. By the sixties, however, the golden streak following their debut had come to a definitive end.
The seventies marked a comeback: Peru made the quarterfinals in the 1970 FIFA World Cup with the help of the incomparable Teófilo "El Nene" Cubillas, to date Peru's greatest soccer player and one of the only two players to have scored five goals in two separate World Cups.
After this strong return la Blanquirroja took the Copa del Pacifico against Chile and the Copa Mariscal Sucre against Bolivia. In 1975, they won their second Copa America and, in 1978, la Blanquirroja qualified for the World Cup once more. During that cup, however, allegations arose that Peru had been paid by the Argentinian government to allow Argentina to win. No evidence surfaced to corroborate the claim, but it stained the team's reputation.
Despite the ugly mark on their honor, the eighties looked promising for Peru. La Blanquirroja qualified for the 1982 World Cup, won the Copa del Pacifico, and enjoyed a spirited tour of games across Europe and Africa. Sadly, the 1982 World Cup would be la Blanquirroja's last for some time. They did not qualify for the World Cup in 1986 and failed to make it past the first round in the 1987 Copa America. That same year, tragedy struck when a plane carrying several national team members crashed into the Pacific.
It was during this time in my national team's history that I became interested in the sport and took up with the team of my country of origin. I suffered when Peru failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1990, but as a fan, I stuck it out. When they failed again in 1994, I began to wonder. I asked my father when la Blanquirroja had last made it to the World Cup and when he smiled and responded, "the year you were born," I lost my faith unable to cope with the notion that the team had been losers my whole life.
We watched the World Cup anyway, as we always did. That year during the finals, my sister became an avid fan of Brazil, so to contradict her I took up for Italy. The final 1994 World Cup game between Brazil and Italy was so intense that I didn't speak to my sister for weeks after Brazil won by penalty shootout.
Azzuri, the Italian National team, became for me much like the sports equivalent of a friend with benefits. They were available during most major games and I was uninterested in pursuing other options. Out of habit, I followed them for years, getting to know the players, scandals and finding some guilty pleasure in their penchant for the dramatic on the field. But like a fickle lover ready for something new and more interesting, I became entranced by Ghana's seemingly effortless movements over the green during the 2006 World Cup and come 2010, was far more interested in the Black Stars than I was in the fate of Azzuri.
To be sure, I never experienced a sport among other supporters of the same team as I did that night in New York years later. My interest in a team had always been a one-person event in front of a media outlet. Despite my travels, it never occurred to me to attend a game played by any team I favored at the time -- in fact, other than horse races and other equestrian sports, I've never attended a sporting event in my life -- so until that night in New York, I had been ignorant of what it was like to be among a mass of people made equal by their faith, fear and devotion to a team.
I hope that one day, I know what it's like. Until then, I'll be keeping an eye on Peru during the rest of the qualifying matches for the 2014 World Cup -- they go up against Venezuela next month -- and tuning in to the football tournaments at the 2012 Summer Olympics, possibly rooting for Spain. I just can't keep the faith.