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Two Flags, A Shelf Of Books, One Beautiful Game

Colombian fans celebrate after their team's 3-0 victory over Greece in the opening rounds of the 2014 World Cup.
AFP/Getty Images
Colombian fans celebrate after their team's 3-0 victory over Greece in the opening rounds of the 2014 World Cup.

Aside from extended stays in a few countries abroad, I've lived in the U.S. most of my life. Proudly, I'm an American. I'm also Colombian. Proudly. Not by birth but by ancestry. And I've spent a fair amount of time in that tortured paradise, the land of my parents, where I fell in love with both books and soccer. My national identity, as a result, feels very much tied to both places, to both languages. And I so happen to know plenty of soccer fans who — around this time every four years — attempt to reconcile their minds and hearts with these and similar feelings.

Why do I bring this up?

In 2010, as the World Cup was kicking off in South Africa, a friend, Guatemalan, said something I've wrestled with quite often since. Colombia wasn't a qualifier then, but I told him that if they had been, I'd likely be rooting for them. He paused, shot me a stern look. And then he accused me of being, basically, un-American. He said one's allegiance, when dealing with an international sport of such consequence, should be only with the country in which one was conceived. His point was more than justifiable, a sentiment understandably shared by many. But to me, the subject has always seemed more complex.

It's no mystery to me why, comparably, I've long gravitated to literature produced outside of the place I call home. The bulk of my reading spans South America, Europe, Asia, elsewhere. America too, sure, but like many readers, I'm drawn to alternate voices and perspectives, to their wild otherness. It touches a nerve for me, a Colombian-American brought up to appreciate diversity.

Last week, Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vasquez won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his thriller The Sound of Things Falling. The first South American to win the award, Vasquez tells the story of a generation nearly destroyed by drugs and violence. And although soccer plays only a small part in the novel, its author is a dedicated fan. "Football is a very big element of the national unity," he recently told The Paris Review.

If you're familiar with the sport even a little, you know Colombia has a complicated relationship with soccer — as do virtually all countries in Latin America. People have died over it, ugly deaths, unnecessary deaths. Twenty years ago, Andrés Escobar — captain of the Colombian national team — accidentally scored a goal for the wrong side, the U.S. A month later, he was dead, gunned down in a parking lot. See, in some places, soccer will never be just a game. Thankfully, things there are nowhere near as violent as they were during that period. Still, soccer will always be serious business.

In his Paris Review interview, Vasquez went on to say — maybe a little sadly — that "there are no stories about this team. These guys now are really so regular. They're just good footballers. There's nothing much you can say about them."

As the World Cup continues to dominate much of our news and conversation, I'm reminded of the intersection of sports and the complexities of nationalism. Me, I've come to understand my position as this: It's not that I don't want to see the U.S. win it all, because I do. It's just that I don't want to see Colombia lose. That wouldn't be poetic at all.

Juan Vidal is a writer and cultural critic from Miami. He tweets at @itsjuanlove.

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