A predictably shy Lucho Herrera delivers the ceremonial first-kick at a Millonarios game in Bogota (1985). Millonarios is one of three soccer clubs in Bogota.
On June 22nd of 1994, the Colombian national team lost 2-1 against the United States in the World Cup. That day marked the end of my love affair with soccer. Although it may sound irrational (because it is), I took the loss personally. Very personally. In fact, I became so saddened by the loss, that it became painfully clear to me that I shouldn't watch soccer/football anymore. Like a powerful gun that some trained professional can handle, but could be dangerous in the hands of an amateur, soccer was simply not for me. I had to turn away. I was too emotionally invested in the games, and the lines between my feelings, Colombia, and its national team were blurred to a point were they ceased to exist. If the team lost, Colombia lost, and I lost...and I could easily end up at the brink of depression for weeks as a result. Although this may sound irrational, it's the way Colombians have always dealt with sports.
As I've written before, the 1980's and the early 90s were an extremely difficult time in Colombia's history, and perhaps because of all the hardship, we all started to attach an unreasonable amount of importance to sporting competitions. They were a drug, a crutch to distract an entire nation away from the thousands of people who were dying at our doorsteps as part of the conflict between drug traders, and the CIA-backed Colombian army. Colombia was at war. The government was greatly destabilized, guerrillas controlled the countryside, and bombings within major cities were a common occurrence. At it's peak, 150 homicides were committed each weekend in Bogota. Weekdays weren't much better. Our nation was in ruins both figuratively and literally. As such, any sign that Colombia had a heartbeat, that it could shine on the world stage in a positive way was welcomed. Luckily for us, sports delivered the much-needed distraction we were all looking for.
The boxer Miguel "Happy" Lora brought us endless pride, as did Walter Weight champ Kid Pambele. Their fights became the stuff of legend, and we all sat glued to our TV sets at ungodly hours watching their fights live as they happened somewhere on the other side of the planet. None of us thought that waking up at 3 or 4 am to watch a fight was unusual. After all, well all woke up at 5am to listen to the Tour de France on the radio...so what was another sleepless night and a subsequent day spent of exhaustion? In those days our goals and dreams, both as individuals and as a country, became dangerously intertwined with sports. Where did our personal lives, our hopes and dreams end, and where did the hopes of a nation and a sports team begin? No one knew. We had all lost track sometime around the third stage win by a Colombian at the 1985 Tour de France, or perhaps by the time our third presidential candidate had been murdered in the course of two months. Perhaps it had been by the tenth or fifteenth bombing in Bogota. We were a country filled with individuals who were largely unable to deal with their surroundings. Because of this, we all quickly regressed into tantruming like children as our feelings boiled over easily and without warning. Emotions were raw as we all suffered through those violent years, and the way we saw sports was no different. Our nerves were constantly on edge, and all emotions were expressed to their fullest extent. It was a dangerous way to live.
In retrospect, the level to which an entire nation was connected by sports was both beautiful and frightening. The shared consciousness that was in place made for intoxicating highs. Victories by our national heroes would mean that millions of us would erupt into the city streets, sometimes on a weekly basis, and throughout the entire city. The situation around us was so so difficult to deal with and so sad, that the highs were celebrated in radically jubilant fashion. The amount of pressure that Colombian sports figures like the national team, or cyclists like Lucho Herrera and Fabio Parra were under was monumental. It was not simply their team that would be let down. It wasn't their family or the team's sponsor. No. It was an entire country, one that was watching and listening, pinning all hopes and dreams on their performances. They had to perform for us. We had little else. They were our hope, they were our drug and they were our next fix. As sports became the opiate of the Colombian masses, few (if any) of us wondered what would happen when a devastating loss would come our way. Sure, we'd had close calls, lost stages, races and matches...but the 2-1 loss at the World Cup was different. The devastating loss had finally happened. And for me, the party was over.
Lucho Herrera, who grew up and continues to live close to Bogota, was always a Millonarios supporter. Here he puts on the team's jersey in 1985.
Leading up to that game, and that World Cup, the coach of the national team (Francisco Maturana) had received multiple death threats as a result of the players he had picked (or not picked) for the team. He often traveled in armored vehicles, and was forced to hire private bodyguards. Maturana was not being overly cautious, he was being realistic. He had earned the job as coach of the national team only after his predecessor had quit due the fact that a price had been put on his head. Maturana knew how emotionally involved the entire country was in sports. By 1994, Colombian cycling had diminished from what it had been in the 1980s, and he knew that all eyes were on him and his team. He knew that a loss could mean his life, or the life of one of his players. The team knew this as well, and at least one player acted accordingly. Only hours before the match against the United States, Gabriel "Barrabas" Gomez quit the team after receiving numerous death threats by fax to the team's hotel. Sadly, one player who went on to play the game that day would never play another one in his life.
In that match against the United States, defender Andres Escobar (no relation to drug lord Pablo Escobar) deflected the ball, which ended up going into the Colombian goal. He had scored on his own team, and Colombia didn't make it past the first round in the World Cup. A loss in the world cup was humiliating, but a loss by an auto-goal against the United States was devastating to an entire country. Upon his return to Medellin, Andres Escobar was shot 12 times at point blank range outside a restaurant because of his blunder. Details about the manner in which Escobar was killed remain sketchy. The most popular account has an argument heating up regarding the 2-1 loss, with the killer either saying "thanks for the auto-goal" or mimicking the spanish-speaking announcers by yelling "Gooooaaaaaaal". Either way, Escobar died instantly and nearly 100,000 mourners came to see his body. Suddenly, things came crashing down for an entire country. Sports, the medicine that all Colombians used to drive away the sad realities of our country, had finally collided with the very troubles that we all sought shelter from. Violence against sports figures was nothing new. As a matter of fact, many cyclists had been murdered and kidnapped before for different reasons in Colombia, but Andres Escobar's death was different. It was a direct reaction to his performance on the world stage. As such, it came as a shock to the entire country.
As I've stated before, the pressure to perform, and thus perhaps dope, is not the same for all athletes around the world. I say this not to make excuses for those who cheat, but rather to paint a broader picture about the realities that many in cycling and other sports are faced with. The threats of extreme poverty, kidnapping, extortion and death have loomed over the heads of many in cycling. Needless to say, these pressures must surely change the manner in which they view the sport.
The day of that game, I was frightened by my own emotional reaction to the loss. It was far too much for me to take. I felt humiliated by the fact that Colombia had lost to the United States, a country that the rest of the world viewed as knowing nothing about the sport. The subsequent murder of Andres Escobar made matters much worse. I quickly realized that sports, soccer in particular, could easily destabilize my mood far too radically. I was too emotionally invested. I chose to stop it. As a result, I stopped watching and following the sport altogether, and have willingly stuck to that decision. I don't miss watching, I don't miss crying, and I don't miss the glee that comes with their victories. I still read the scores, I still play from time to time, and I'll occasionally follow a team for an entire championship. But things have changed. The overwhelming emotions and sadness that the sport was capable of making me endure are kept at arm's length. Some could say that this is the sign of a bad fan, one who enjoys the wins, but turns away at the losses. I'm not sure that's entirely true. Sports were so loaded with emotion and political meaning for Colombians in the 1980s and early 90s, that I would argue that they transcended the meaning of the word "sports". Soccer and cycling were not simply a part of our lives, they were our lives at a time when few other sources happiness could be found in Colombia. It's with that dramatic outlook that I continue to view soccer. I can't say that my emotions and my decision make complete sense, but how many of our feelings do?
Lucho Herrera on the cover of the Millonarios fan magazine. This is literally the only picture I've ever seen of Herrera smiling. The yellow headline at the top right says "Millonarios and Hinault are the two things I worry most about when I'm in France"
For whatever reason, I view cycling differently. The victories by Colombian cyclists in the 80s still hold an unbelievable amount of meaning for me, but I never chose to willingly turn away from professional cycling as I did with soccer. Similarly, watching cycling today is an emotional affair, but seldom draws out the over the top responses that soccer was capable of doing many years ago. Perhaps this could all change if the Colombia Es Pasion team makes it to some Pro Tour events. Maybe it could all fall apart the day that a Colombian cyclist is fighting for a top spot at a Classic or a stage race. I don't know. I wish I could say that I'm smart enough to know that I'll be able to keep my feelings in check if Colombians once again rise in the sport as they did in the 80s. I'm not sure. For whatever reason, I can be hugely invested in a cycling race, but still not be completely demolished if a certain rider doesn't win. Unlike soccer, cycling seems to be more about the process than the ultimate result. What cycling fan was not in awe of the awful wet and muddy stage at this year's Giro? While I was thrilled to see Evans win that stage, I marveled almost just as much when I saw any of the riders having to deal with the terrain and its inherent difficulty. Evens' victory was emotional and hard earned, but the beauty of the stage was there for all of us to enjoy. All riders felt it. It was the hardship that made us connect with the race and with the riders. It was the process which was there to be enjoyed by all of us that day...not just those who wanted Evans to win the stage. We enjoyed the toughness it took to ride and finish that stage, not just the hardship endured by the one guy who won it.
This is, in my view, is a unique aspect to cycling and its fans. Although I normally eschew many of the common terms in the cycling fan's lexicon (such as "epic", as in "the post you are reading is epic in length"), it does come down to the suffering that riders endure, not at the finish line, but during the race, and during the preparation for it. The process that fans admire often starts months if not years prior to the event we're watching. The rider's body fat plummets as the race they are targeting nears, their strength and form peak. As described in the book Lance's War, a professional's wife says she can tell when the Tour is near because:
She can start to see her husband's internal organs—his liver, his kidneys—beneath the skin.
Although that description will probably sound absolutely insane to many (and rightfully so), cycling fans have come to know that such levels of intensity and preparation are part of the sport. Again, it's this type of dedication that followers admire. Tyler Hamilton grinding his teeth down due to severe pain at the Giro, him finishing the Tour with a broken collarbone. These stories of suffering make mere humans (tiny humans at that) into huge figures. The story of cycling is greater and broader than the winner of the race. Did you see how the stage developed, and how the attacks unfolded? Did you see the unpaved part of the climb? What about the rider who finished soaked in blood? Did you catch the domestique who set a furious pace and faded into oblivion at the base of the climb? It's those aspects that can make the race, because they exemplify the tenacity of the rider's spirits. While it's true that some races can seem boring from time to time, it's not what's on the screen that we're seeing. We're seeing the struggle to get to that point in the stage race, the preparation needed to race in that Classic, the effort put in by the many riders who will never have a chance to win. That's what we're watching. How else could you possibly explain the fact that so many fans adore and constantly pay homage to the lanterne rouge? It's because we cherish and admire the physical hell that the rider in that position is enduring. It's because we know that for 95% or more of the riders in a race, winning is not even the goal. It's the process. It's racing, not winning. Cycling is an odd sport indeed, and thank god for that.
This is not a matter of cycling versus soccer/football. That's a stupid argument to have, and that's coming from me...a guy who's been known to willingly and happily engage in stupid arguments all the time. As I see it, the process in sport makes all the difference. And it's simply not there to that extent in soccer, at least not for me. The team wins, or the team looses. Matches can be beautiful and hard fought...but the result says it all. Win or loose. Which was it? Additionally, the emotions it draws out of me, are inevitably linked to national pride, and thus (in my case) from a different time and place. As I see it, and I don't expect anyone else to agree with me, soccer is a sport you watch in Colombia, surrounded by Colombians. Merely watching the sport here in the United States feels cheap. It's a spectacle, and a cheap one at that. It's like a pathetic Oktoberfest celebration at an Applebees chain restaurant location somewhere in Iowa. It's not the genuine article, and thus makes me long for home...and (oddly enough) makes me miss those days in the 1980s when all that mattered to an entire nation was that day's match.
Yes, I realize that the insanity with which many of us view sports are proof of our stupidity. The people on our screens and on the field are over there. We are here at home, watching. They have little to do with us. It's perhaps for this reason that I now make a mental note to keep myself in check. I remind myself to enjoy the event, but never to despair. It's supposed to be fun, remember? Still, since the World Cup is about to start, I couldn't help but think about the difference of what the event used to mean to me then, and what it means to be now. If you'll forgive me for being overly dramatic once again, watching soccer in the United States feels a bit like watching old family movies, the ones filled with people who are longer alive. It's a somber affair. Soccer, for whatever reason, stayed in the past for me. It remains frozen in time at the moment when Andres Escobar was murdered. I still enjoy the sport, and will forever support my beloved Millonarios, but the levels of admiration I was once capable of have largely faded. This is further underscored by the fact that Colombia will not be competing in the World Cup that is starting this week. To go back to my already flawed analogy of the family movies, watching the World Cup this year would be akin to watching someone else's family movies. Movies where you don't recognize a single person. You may understand the spirit of them and their significance...but the passion simply isn't there. There is no connection to the images on the screen. Not only is that because Colombia isn't playing, but because I now feel so distant from the sport. So I must ask you, do you want to watch hours of someone else's family movies? I don't.