For The Love of The Game

Atletico Nacional
Atletico Nacional: Copa de Libertadores Champions. I can truly say that I’m jumping on the winning bandwagon with this team from Medellin.

One of the best things about living in a foreign country is exploring and becoming immersed in the local sports scene. When you’re living outside the U.S., a different kind of football takes precedence over all of the sports combined. Football, in most countries, is the national sport and one in which kids from an early age learn to play and master over the years. Whether its’ a city street, a dirt field, or turf glass, football is an adaptable sport to any kind of climate which is why its’ such a famed world sport.

Before I started my travels, I looked upon football (soccer) as not that exciting and didn’t understand why it was so beloved. I didn’t like how there wasn’t that much scoring and didn’t appreciate how much skill and technique is needed in order to be successful. Football is like a fine wine that you grow to appreciate the more you learn about it. It’s a unique sport that caters both to the individual and the team too. You can play it anywhere and with anyone. Now, that I’m in my mid-20’s, I can say with a growing confidence how much I appreciate the ‘beautiful game for what it is.

The more I have traveled, the more I have witnessed the absolute love and passion that football fans have for their teams. Growing up in New York, I was a big fan of the New York Yankees and the New York Jets but it doesn’t really compare to the fanatics and supporters who back their football clubs up whether they win or lose. When I lived in Istanbul, Turkey, I saw this passion firsthand as celebrations or riots would occur whether or not the three big teams of Galatasaray, Besiktas, and Fenerbahce would win or lose. Fans of any of these local teams would light flares in the stadiums, parade through the streets, and fill the local bars up to capacity. There are few things in life that get people as emotional as the result of a football match. You have to be careful if you catch yourself in the wrong part of the city if you have your favorite team’s jersey on but they don’t support that team in that neighborhood.

I’ll never forget when thousands of Fenerbahce fans would crowd the streets of Kadikoy to celebrate their win over Besiktas. They sang team songs, lit flares up, and you could barely move through the streets. I, as a disgruntled Besiktas fan, realized just how outnumbered I was so I was forced to hide my dismay after the team had lost in a crushing defeat. There were also happier teams as an adopted Besiktas fan back in 2012 when I was studying abroad in Istanbul at the time. I remember counting down to the start of my first Besiktas match with thousands of other supporters as we jumped up and down to sing songs in support of our boys in black and white.

It’s truly a special experience when you go to a sporting event in a foreign country. I tend to find that football matches like the ones I experienced in Turkey had very passionate fans that made quite an event out of each and every game. While sporting events in the U.S. are quite fun and enjoyable in their own right, they are much more reserved than what I’ve seen from my experiences in Turkey and Colombia. A recent sports triumph that happened here in Medellin has helped make that even more true in my opinion.

Last Wednesday night, the popular and beloved Atletico Nacional team of Medellin triumphed over the Independiente del Valle FC of Quito, Ecuador to win the famed Copa de Libertadores trophy. For those of you who don’t know, the Copa de Libertadores is the South American equivalent of the UEFA Champions League where the best teams of the continent from Argentina to Paraguay battle it out over the course of many months to decide which team is the best in all of South America. It’s an intense tournament with a lot of talented teams. There are a lot of matches to play and a lot of travel involved. Its’ so difficult to win this championship that only two teams from Colombia have ever emerged victorious.

Atletico Nacional won the first championship for a Colombian club, in 1989, and Once Caldas of Manizales earned the second championship more recently in 2004. You could argue, in fact, that the Copa de Libertadores is more competitive than the UEFA Champions League of Europe given that twenty-five different teams from South America have won the title making it a more balanced and fair. There are heavyweight teams like Boca Juniors of Argentina and Santos of Brazil but there have been many underdogs who have emerged victorious in their quest of the trophy over the Copa’s history of competition.

I was lucky enough to be at a bar on the recent night when Atletico Nacional won their 2nd Copa de Libertadores title in their team history. It took them 27 years to become champions of South American club football and the excitement was palpable. A new and younger generation of devoted fans has emerged here in Medellin, and has never tasted a Copa win before. The city was on edge before the match but there was a sense of destiny with fans of all ages and backgrounds sporting the green and white of Atletico Nacional.

Taxis were hoisting the team’s flag all over the city, vendors were selling jerseys everywhere, and bars were decorating their establishments with green and white balloons. If you were a recent visitor to Medellin, you would think that there is only one football team in the city, and not two (Independiente Medellin is the other football team here with red and blue colors.) It was a special setup for a memorable match. Atletico Nacional had tied Independiente del Valle in Quito with a score of 1-1 so all they needed to do was come out with a simple victory at home now.

Due to an early and beautiful goal by forward Miguel Borja, the apprehension quickly turned to celebration for fans of Atletico Nacional all around the world. Fans still had to draw their breath after another 90 minutes of tension but Atletico Nacional were poised and determined to come out on top as champions. Atletico Nacional were victorious at 1-0 and when the final whistle blew, all of Medellin erupted in cheers, dancing, singing, and drinking.

Never in my life had I seen a city so joyous in the aftermath of victory. Cars were honking, fireworks were exploding all over, and huge crowds had formed in the streets to celebrate. Luckily, everything was peaceful here in Medellin during the night. Avenida 70, where a lot of bars and clubs were located, were so crowded that it took me an hour to get home because taxis couldn’t get through the streets. It was a wild and uproarious night and one that won’t soon be forgotten in the Colombian sports history books.

As a foreigner living here, it was pretty amazing to see the passion and the joy on the faces of the fans. If I had to compare it to a U.S. sports celebration, it would most closely resemble the Red Sox winning the 2004 World Series after an 86-year drought. The celebrations here were that intense and extensive. The school where I’m teaching here in Medellin opened its doors a few hours later than normal so that students could get some rest (or the teachers themselves.) In Turkey and now Colombia, I’ve seen the love that millions of people have for the real football. It is truly ‘the beautiful game.’

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