In mid October, when an old college teammate and friend (and die-hard Colombia fan) asked if I was interested in joining him to attend Colombia versus Chile in a World Cup qualifier, without hesitation I responded with a positive affirmation. I had never been to South America, nor seen a match of this magnitude in person.
Qualification for the World Cup in South America consists of ten nations on the continent competing for five places (4 direct and 1 playoff), and takes place during international breaks throughout the year. It began in October of 2015 and will continue into October of 2017. The importance of qualifying for the World Cup in this continent can only be understood if one also understands how futbol shapes the lives of South Americans. As the only major sport in most of the countries, here futbol truly transcends race, age, and gender.
It is so closely tied to the culture and language that the power felt in a qualifier can only be explained in abstracts that are immeasurable such as passion or enthusiasm. The culmination of that passion occurs every four years during the World Cup, so qualification is of the utmost and fierce importance.
Our arrival in Colombia began in Bogota airport in the early morning, with a long layover until our flight to Cartagena. We watched in excitement as every quarter hour passed and the number of Cafeteros jerseys, jackets, and attire kept growing. Even at 4 am, the feeling of the match was already noticeable in yellow, blue, and red throughout. There was a buzz around the airport as every person nearby that hears talk of the game adds their thoughts on the players called, the last match, a projected scoreline, or anything on their mind. It became very apparent that days of qualification games capture the entire nation of Colombia, and it was felt everywhere we went.
When we finally boarded our flight to Cartagena, the excitement that seemed dreamlike to me before was starting to become real. It was a reality any futbol fan would appreciate wholeheartedly.
Colombia plays its qualifying matches at the Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Melendez (El Metro for short) in Barranquilla on the northern coast. Following our arrival in Cartagena, we noticed that the number of yellow shirted Colombians had grown exponentially. And many of those that were not wearing yellow had on red or blue. We luckily managed to rent a car (we had not reserved one) and make the drive of over an hour along the coast to Barranquilla. That drive is an experience all on its own as seaside villas change into shantytowns and then into wetlands, and back again. Cars and vans buzzed past us on the left and motorbikes on the right, while mules stayed a little further off the road. With the azure of the Caribbean off to the north, lush green jungles off to the south, and occasional mountains on the horizon, the imagery of the Colombian countryside was as colorful and vibrant as its futbol fans. We badly wanted to stop and eat at one of the little roadside huts or take a quick swim in the sea, but stayed focused instead on getting to Barranquilla so we could have time to check in to the hotel and get situated before the early afternoon game.
From what we learned, this location along the sea offered a different feel than the other larger mainland cities such as Bogota, Medellin, or Cali. Coastal areas have a distinct culture with Caribbean vibes, therefore Barranquilla offers the Colombian national team a place of psychological refuge. The robust flavor of the northern coast and colorful scenery certainly offers the Colombians traveling to see the game from elsewhere a sort of mini vacation. The climate in this region provides a nice, warm daytime temperature, thus giving Los Cafeteros an advantage to visitors like Chile, and the stadium atmosphere at El Metro is second to none.
When we drove into the city of Barranquilla, there were vendors lined up and down the road leading in. A sea of yellow jerseys clipped to makeshift clotheslines for sale and a rainbow of other colors dotted with scarves, noise makers and every piece of Colombia merchandise imaginable could be seen from the distance. There was no doubt the entire area had been overtaken by futbol fans from all over, as shops, restaurants, and nearly every street corner was occupied by an enthusiastic crowd of people. Barranquilla itself is a mix of old and new buildings, some modern resort type hotels and other older but still maintained structures. It was apparent from Cartagena to Barranquilla that this region of Colombia was growing via tourism, as literally hundreds of workers of all trades were seen everywhere building roads, bridges, villas, condos, hotels and large apartment buildings.
From the hotel in north Barranquilla we requested a cab (our fare was 20,000 Colombian pesos, which translates to American $6.50), and took around 15 or 20 minutes with traffic. We arrived at the stadium early to meander around, check out the vendors, and take in the atmosphere, seeing as our goal was to get inside at least an hour before kick off.
Fruit and kabob stands provided a sweet and smoky balance to the smell of beer. Vendors with worn-out foam coolers sold beers for 5,000 pesos and water for 2,000. The organized chaos was well patrolled by policia of all types and branches, and we never felt unsafe during the entire time. The policia are easy to see because their green or black uniforms stand out among the everlasting crowds of Amarillo jerseys. All the while singing and horn blowing, the noisemakers provided the background tones to the foreground vendor voices searching for the hungry and thirsty fans. Eventually we managed to make our way into the stadium after a quick pat down and checking our belts (no belts inside the stadium).
Going into the match, Colombia were sitting third on 17 points, 4 points behind leaders Brasil and 3 behind second placed Uruguay. Coach Jose Pekerman had a mostly healthy squad at his disposal and he was undoubtedly thinking of the possibility of closing the gap on Brasil (who played Argentina in a head to head). Chile, meanwhile, looked to improve on their fifth place position behind Ecuador, although they were missing their talisman Alexis Sanchez who was out through an injury sustained recently at Arsenal. The day match in the Caribbean posed a difficult challenge for both sides, with the pressure always on Los Cafeteros in Barranquilla where they have only lost once so far in qualifying. On the other side Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi would likely be happy to escape Colombia with a point.
Once inside the stadium, both my friend and I realized that all of our travels were totally worthwhile. This was by far the most amazing stadium experience I had ever been a part of. Even an hour before kickoff, the stadium was one quarter full and still as loud as one can imagine. As kick off approached the number of yellow shirts grew and filled in the seats, changing the color inside the stadium. There was a constant motion to the sea of Amarillo, and the entire stadium was incredibly loud, especially for the national anthem. The match itself was less than we had hoped for, as Chile sat deep and rarely took risks going forward. The game lacked the quality chances and the creative combinations that some South American qualifiers can present. Overall, Colombia were most dangerous on a few set pieces, and Chile limited them to only a few shots from outside the 18. The Chileans played a sound defensive match and did well to hold a strong line that Colombia had a hard time breaking down. They were content to stay and play in the middle third of the field, sending a few players forward on counter attacks when available. Colombia’s players did well to contain Chile’s possession, springing a few through balls into the right flank which looked to be dangerous early in the match. As the end of the first half approached, Colombia looked to be the more energetic and dynamic side, with James Rodriguez zipping around and connecting passes in his usual style. Unfortunately for Los Cafeteros the half ended just when they seemed like they were gaining momentum.
Radamel Falcao entered the match for Colombia to start the second half and the crowd was more than happy to welcome him back, as he ran out to a rapturous applause after being unavailable for recent qualifiers. His presence was noticed immediately because he helped Colombia hold the ball higher up the field and allowed James Rodriguez to function in a more advanced role. Nonetheless Chile bunkered down and battled for the draw from the beginning of the second half, sitting deep and only sending Vargas with limited support on most counter attacks. Vidal, aside from one volley that went wide, was most effective in his time-wasting tactics—play-acting injury after drawing fouls.
Colombia had a few shots from outside the box and some promising runs and combinations with James and Falcao, but in the end the Chilean midfield and defense remained stout.
Claudio Bravo got injured after a collision with Santiago Arias, and had to leave the game. Like the Vidal incidents, the Bravo injury took momentum away from Colombia as the play was stopped and started so many times. The game ended as a goalless draw, with Colombia mostly dominating the play during the second half.
The South American qualifying continues Tuesday as Colombia travel to Argentina and Chile host Uruguay. Both teams remained in their respective third and fifth spots in the standings, but face difficult opponents in this coming round. Chile are still without Alexis Sanchez, and Colombia match up against an Argentina side looking to get back on track following their loss to Brasil. However the qualifying unravels, it will definitely be a feisty affair among those teams in the third through sixth positions.
We sat for a few long moments to take in the last of the stadium atmosphere and the entire experience. Sadly, we can only imagine how different the reaction would have been had Colombia been able to pull away with a victory. The sea of yellow filtered out of the stadium and into the streets. The buzz and energy from the game continued into the night, as many had already switched attention to the Argentina-Brasil game that was on TV. The beer, food, and shirt vendors remained out in full fashion following the game and a wave of traffic surrounded El Metro for miles. The taxis, motorcycles, buses, vans, and cars were moving frantically in all directions as the policia monitored on foot and motorbike patrol all around the stadium.
The Colombian fans remained yellow throughout the night as they lounged outside bars and restaurants throughout north and south Barranquilla. Perhaps the energy and excitement were not as pronounced as it would have been had the Cafeteros won, but the passion was felt nonetheless. Colombians have a love for the sport that is immeasurable, and easily noticeable to an outsider visiting the region for the first time. The culture is warm and friendly and has a great mix between South American and Caribbean vibes. The weather was also very pleasant and warm, and later on coastal breeze took the warmth of the night from the skin.
After a few final Colombian drinks and some local seafood, the weight of the day was finally sinking in.
My first experience in South America was an unforgettable one. To see firsthand how the sport of futbol can transcend race, gender, and age is a truly spectacular phenomenon. There are only a few special things in life that can boast this ability, such as language, food, music, and the arts. Certainly in Colombia the sport of futbol is on that list. The entire trip embodied all these cultural facets in a short amount of time and have already made a lasting impression. The vibrancy of the people and the beauty of the landscape are an experience on their own, but the addition of futbol would make this a life changing event for any futbol fan.