THE BLOG

FIFA Fervor in Colombia

07/01/2014 09:12 pm ET | Updated Aug 31, 2014

These are precious days precious in Colombia, where hope and glory at the FIFA World Cup are transforming national identity. You can't help but notice the combination of passion, patriotism and "team spirit" that bonds people to each other. So too is soccer's shadow side, where wins and losses both carry a legacy of past and present violence. Soccer (fútbol) is more than a game in Colombia, and the forces at play extend far beyond Brazil.

On the plus side, this FIFA World Cup has infused energy and courage into popular Colombian culture. Strangers become best friends and embrace when the team scores, and share agony and anxiety over setbacks. The symbols of unity pervade Bogota. Cars, like people, are decked out in Colombian colors. Women paint their nails yellow, blue and red, and the street vendors paint their faces to match the FIFA paraphernalia on sale at every corner.

The feeling of national unity amazes me. I've never seen anything like it in America. Sure, we all rally behind the U.S. Olympic teams, but this is something else entirely. This is a national fervor that causes the streets to empty when the game is on and crosses every conceivable line in society (and this is a country of historically rigid strata and immobility). In the U.S., fans wear team jerseys to games on weekends, but here just about everyone has a Colombian National Team home soccer jersey. Seriously.

At the same time, reports of post-game violence including fatalities, fights, injuries and vehicle accidents are staggering. And this is despite liquor bans and other measures. The crazy, horrifying thing about the ongoing violence is that it's linked to celebration. What irony that passion transforms rejoicing into grieving, especially in a country that's seen more than enough grieving unrelated to FIFA.

So, I wonder about fervor and the risk of fanaticism, in addition to the dirty business of the game. And I remember the murder of Colombian 1994 National Team member Andrés Escobar, whose death was linked (at least in popular culture) to his own goal that dashed the country's chances for victory. Who is to say what really happened, but the shadows of violence are long and questions remain.

Like so many others, I want the 2014 FIFA World Cup to be exceptional in the best sense of the word. Traveling through Colombia, I root for this team and feel the pleasure that comes from participation in something so much bigger than myself. I love the way soccer breaks the silence, fostering communication between strangers in bars, on buses, and in the most unlikely places. I'm amused by "soccer-free zone" signs, like "tobacco-free zone" signs, outside a bookstore nearby; yet, I worry for the store's security.

I also worry about the next game (and hopefully all the games up through the finals), where the threat of violence is high: win or lose. What is it about sports (especially, at this level), that triggers a kind of craziness in human beings? Is the game worth the risk and loss? Or is the risk of loss always present, simply exposed by the energy of competition?

Viva Colombia! And this applies both to the team at FIFA and all Colombians, watching the games at home.