In the 116th minute of the 2010 World Cup finals, kicked the ball into the back of the Dutch goal and an entire nation erupted in nervous jubilation as it realized that a title was within reach. A few minutes later, the referee blew the final whistle and the title was a reality. More than forty-six million Spaniards could finally claim to be World Champions. It was a great moment for a soccer nation that had long failed to live up to expectations. For me, it was the pinnacle of my experience with soccer, a sport that holds a special place in my life.
As the son of an immigrant, I have spent a great portion of my life mixing a Spanish heritage with American surroundings. It has been a life long journey of forging two cultures into one identity. During my youth, I struggled with the two worlds. How could I mold a sense of American self without denying my Spanish background? I tried through several of the following mediums, but most of them were far from flawless: LANGUAGE. Learning the native tongue seemed a sure connection. However, it was a great challenge. I often stumbled in my Spanish words, getting tangled in verb conjugations and finding the perfect translation. And even though I avidly studied the language in school, it did not feel completely right as my accent was a hybrid of several Latin dialects and the words did not come naturally. FOOD. I started to develop a great appreciation for . I could identify and savor many of the native dishes. However, I was left to wonder: how did this make me different from say an American tourist who has a great palate for Spanish food? MUSIC & DANCE. Ok, let’s not go there. Can you say tone-deaf teenager with two left feet that cannot move his hips? Finding a link to my ancestors was proving difficult. What could help bridge the gap ?
SOCCER? From an early age, I enjoyed playing soccer. While most of my free time in the neighborhood was spent with my American friends playing football and baseball, I looked forward to autumn when soccer season would arrive. It was a great way to spend a Saturday with my classmates outside of school. We bonded on the field with the game and afterwards with a trip to Dairy Queen. Playing soccer was special not only for the comradery, but also for the sense of belonging. I still remember the thrill of putting on the jersey before the game. A jersey that meant I was part of a team .
At first, watching soccer was not that appealing to me. Why would I want to sit in front of the television when I could be outside playing the game? It was during my parent’s gatherings with their Spanish speaking friends that I started to take interest in the sport as a spectator. Their friends would tell us about great soccer players such asand Kempes. Their children and I would listen intently as they described these men as national heroes because of the contributions to their team ’s success in a tournament called the World Cup. This intrigued me not only because of the sport but also because of the bond that it seemed to have created between the parents and their children. And some of them were children of immigrants, just like me.
Of course, a few years passed before I could really experience my first World Cup. But it was well worth the wait. The 1986 World Cup in Mexico was my first vivid experience with the tournament and it can be credited with making me a fan. It was a tremendous showcase of soccer teams from around the world and dramatic matches: France coming from behind to beat and eliminate powerhouse Brazil, Belgium’s overtime victory against the Soviet Union, and of course the infamous “Hand of God” game with and
The final game was also a treat as Argentina edged Germany in a back-and-forth match. There were also some spectacular individual performances by players such as Maradona, Lineker,, and Butragueno. What was also special turned out to be witnessing the joy and bond of our family friends celebrating their country’s victory. I will never forget seeing the shared happiness of those Argentineans basking in the glow of their nation’s achievement.
After watching that World Cup, I eagerly anticipated the next one. But I soon discovered that it was not just an appreciation of soccer that I had gained. I had also gained a new parent-child bond, or more specifically, a father-son bond. As a teenager, it can be difficult to bond with one’s father. A teenager is often caught between the acceptance of his friends and the approval his parents. But with soccer, we now had something safe to share. I think Daniel Stern’s character Phil in the movie City Slickers summarized it best when he defended the importance of sports in his youth “Ok. Maybe it’s just a game and it can be childish. But when I was 18 and my Dad and I couldn’t talk about much of anything, we could still talk about baseball. That was real”. During those awkward teenage years, I found comfort in talking to my dad about soccer.
And the World Cup was providing me an easier and more effective way to bond with my Spanish heritage. No difficult words to pronounce, no awkward dance moves to attempt. Also, I could watch Spain play on television just as Spaniards would be doing in their homes. We would have the common experience of watching our national team play without the barriers of language or environment. We could both talk about our team ’s accomplishments with pride. And we could wear the same jersey. A jersey that meant we belonged to the same team .
However, I would learn that being a World Cup soccer fan was not all roses. LET THE SUFFERING BEGIN….one of my soccer brothers once texted me this before a recent World Cup match and unfortunately those words are often true. Why? First of all, the World Cup is held every FOUR years. So there is no “wait until next year”. You wait four years for your team to play, IF they qualify. Those are four long years in which your expectations rise and rise, until you believe that your team can win. Anything less becomes a disappointment. Secondly, soccer is a low scoring game that is often decided by one goal. And one goal can come as a result of any play, good or bad. So basically you spend 90 minutes praying that your team does not make one bad pass, one bad save, or one bad tackle, and hoping that they somehow score. It can be an agonizing experience. And far too many times I witnessed my team come up short.
But as they say: “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. And as the years passed, even though my team did not win the World Cup, my ties to my Spanish heritage became stronger. Each game that I saw became another experience that I had in common with my Spanish dad, family, and countrymen. We could talk about our team ’s journey, through good and bad.
Was it really soccer that brought me closer to my heritage? Ok, I realize that we are just talking about a game. And in the end, I did use some of those other mediums to bring me closer to my roots. However, during those troublesome teenage years, soccer maintained my connection to my Spanish blood. So when I was adult, I still had that drive for more. I went back to school to study. I was able to learn even more about the culture of my ancestors. I also improved my language skills, and even though I am far from fluent, I can maintain a decent conversation. As a result, I felt much better about my ties to my heritage. Then the only thing left to do was make my connection official. In June of 2006, I was able to successfully obtain my Spanish citizenship, giving me dual American and Spanish nationality. In a way, it marked a milestone in the journey of a life- long dream to forge the two cultures into one identity.
What is left in this journey? I have come to realize that I don’t want this connection to end with me. It has become a hope that my son Gabriel continues the ties. Soccer presented me with the opportunity to spark his interest. In 2008, he watched intently as Spain played in the European championship. I could see that he was becoming drawn to “futbol”. The only thing missing was a World Cup experience.Enter . There were huge expectations for Spain entering this World Cup. They had won the and had arguably one of their best teams of all time. However, I knew all too well that a letdown was quite possible. Too many times before Spain had been among the favorites, and too many times they had failed. I tried to temper my son’s enthusiasm, as well as my own, in order to prepare for the worst. But then it happened. Spain squeaked out win after win during the knockout stage and made it to the finals. And in the finals they were finally able to come out on top. It was a great triumph. However, the 2010 World Cup was a triumph for me not only because Spain won, but also because it continued to strengthen Gabriel’s connection to his heritage. After the tournament, he asked me about nationality and inquired if he could also obtain Spanish citizenship. He now has the chance to maintain those ties to his ancestors. I could not be more proud…And I have soccer to thank for that.