One beautiful Sunday afternoon, my dad was really bored.
“Hey, let’s go to the stadium!”
For me that was a completely foreign concept having lived 99 percent of my life in the United States. Sports in our lives, was watching Tony Tirado call the game of the week on SIN (now Univision) and every Saturday watched Soccer Made In Germany on PBS.
For my family there was no way we could head all the way up to Lockhart Stadium to watch the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers play. Add to the distance, the fact that my father only earned 100 dollars a week to feed a wife, two kids, and two other family members… plus pay rent and keep the lights on was a hefty task for him.
So to live in Colombia for a year was a culture shock of sorts as some of the customs were only a part of my subconscious and not a part of my everyday activities. At the same time it was a chance to truly expose me to the passion he had for the game. My dad would work 13, 14 hour days as a mechanic, six days a week. So when I did see him it was a treat. But up to then, the game really wasn’t something that bonded us for obvious reasons.
The language barrier didn’t exist in my situation. My mom and dad spoke as much English as I did Bahlavian or Esperanto. So Spanish was the default language for in my household.
After living in Colombia, Spanish became so ingrained in my life that I “forgot” how to speak English. Ok, it might be a slight overkill on the hyperbole, but I literally had to learn how to “speak” again. It wasn’t something that the old “getting back on the bike again” routine couldn’t solve… that’s something we could talk about in another opportunity.
So we headed to the Atanasio Girardot to see Nacional play Tolima along with 50,000 of my closest friends. Wow what an experience it was for a six-year old kid. The reigning league champs were in action, although their championship form was not quite there. There was also a special air to this match as it was the first match being played after the World Cup in Spain- the first World Cup I have a conscious recollection of.
Nacional were beginning a rebuilding phase after the tragic death of legendary coach Oswaldo Juan Zubeldía. The teams’ psyche was rocked as their master tactician influenced Colombian football much like one of his predecessors did as well. Carlos Bilardo was the Colombian national team coach and he would bring his quirks and pragmatic style to the game. Both of these coaches were fundamental in establishing the Colombian player, but it was their style that was inhibiting that player to really excel and apply their full potential in favor of a more robotic and tactically inclined style of play.
Nacional saw that as their title defense eventually would leave much to be desired. They flamed out of what seemed to be an accessible group in Copa Libertadores alongside Deportes Tolima as well as Venezuelan sides Deportivo Táchira and Estudiantes Mérida. This made the match I went to that much more important as the two best teams in Colombia from the last season faced off.
Add to that the heartbreak of the World Cup seeing Brazil go down to Italy. I still remember the tears that streamed down my eyes when my oldest cousin told me… “The World Cup is over. Not even worth watching it anymore.” This is coming from a family where my dad had cousins named Edson Arantes, Jairzinho, and Rivelino Tostão- González.
So when Argentina flamed out as well, the other side went into a tizzy.
For me at that age it was Zico, Socrates, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge some of the players I looked up to as a kid. At the same time there was another player you might have heard of named Diego Maradona that captured the imagination of many of the kids in my neighborhood.
Despite all those being idols of the game, they still seemed a bit distant. They weren’t individuals I could relate with. The only one that came close was Maradona as I saw him plastered all over my cousins’ walls and we read features about him on El Gráfico.
In the end there was the domestic league to give us all comfort. For me there would be one player that would change the way I saw the game- César Cueto. My family would always talk about “El Poeta de la Zurda” (The Poet of the Left Foot). The way he touched the ball. The way he caressed it every time he dribbled through defenses. The manner in which the ball obeyed him made the game no longer a match. Cueto made it a poetry recital. The treat was that I got to see Cueto in his first match back from Spain.
I can still remember the reception. ”CUEETOOOO… CUEETOOOOO!!!”
Ticker tape coming from every corner of the stadium and the team would step onto the pitch. He was the mater per excellence on the field. A charismatic leader that was also provider, entertainer, and -most importantly- goal scoring threat.
When he stepped on the ambience seemed surreal. The cheers would subside every time Cueto touched the ball. They didn’t stop cheering because they were bored. The fans stopped because they wanted to take every moment in. They did not want to miss a frame in the epic movie they were watching.
I got to see a free kick with his left foot and it was the moment where I wanted to see him more often. That ball “obeyed” him yet again. It took flight at it made a sharp left hand turn right before the goalkeeper and Cueto made the fans at the stadium come to their feet like Caruso must have in many of his performances. Nacional won the match handily 2-0 and more importantly I knew how I liked my football by then.
Cueto was a big deal and still is as his legacy made me a romantic of the game. I always want to see the game played to his standard. With his deft touch, his craftiness and flair all emerging in a grandiose moment of inspiration.
So going to Colombia for a year was a time when my eyes were opened as to how the world was outside of my backyard. Going to a place where the only thing that bonded me to it was family left me with a sea of uncertainty. In the end it was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life.
So I guess you could say that what I am doing now as an adult I cherish even more because of those moments. I went to see him at the stadium a few more times but he would part ways with Nacional at the end of the season, but he would forever remain in the hearts and minds of the Verdolaga faithful.
After those few visits thereafter, I would bid adieu to going to the stadium as it was no longer safe to go for reasons everyone knows about. That, plus my return to the United States also were influential factors. The only difference would be I would do whatever I could to listen to the games on the radio as much as I could because Cueto’s magic was still in my memory.
He taught me to dream and demand that type of football.