Storytelling and narratives
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Soccer, injustice, and Colombia beyond the single story

My days are split. I spend half of them typing narratives of loss, injustice, and victimhood, courage, and resilience from Colombia, in an air-conditioned library that can afford me a cooler temperature and the kind of peace that my own apartment can’t provide. I spend the other half consuming the national drink of whichever country I’m cheering on: Ouzo, German beer, American beer, caipirinhas, aguardiente — all in the name of a soccer-themed nationalism. A friend even remarked today that I showed up to the Brazil-Colombia quarter-final game in my “most Colombian outfit.” She wasn’t wrong.

I am not sure how I feel about most of the reflective moments in my life at the moment alternately emanating either from the dungeons of a library or from a (fairly corrupt) (fairly gendered) (fairly classist) (fairly is the wrong word) sporting event.

And yet.

I spent last week cheering on Greece — unlikely, for reasons I’ve written about before. And I spent my afternoon cheering on Colombians, in a Brazilian restaurant at that. It seems like all the teams I root for require a little bit of gall.

Soccer has become much more democratic these days. Between Facebook and text messaging, WhatsApp and instant replays, we ask questions about what we all saw. “Did you think that was a penalty?” “Such-and-such a country was robbed!” And in the world we all inhabit, we also inhabit multiple, sometimes contradictory, sometimes competing loyalties. Today we are Colombian, tomorrow Greek. Today we are German, tomorrow Brazilian. At noon we are Argentine, at four Italian. The loyalties shift, depending on which team is winning, or which memory is more salient — or which nationalism is feeling more nostalgic.

Earlier this week, I was drawing lessons from my Greek compatriots, some of whom — at the age of 37 (hello, Karagounis) — played 120 minutes against Costa Rica with all the fire one could long for in a game. With all of the longing. Those were lessons about resilience, and want, and resisting age-ism, and burning our expectations to the ground. Numerous commentators said the result did not do the Greek effort justice. Yet others claim penalty kicks are not a just ending to a World Cup match. Growing up, I always disliked the “life is not fair/life is unjust/learn that when you are young” line of explanatory consolation about the injustices of the world. It felt lazy and complacent and not fulfilling –and, in part, as infuriating as injustice itself feels. Somehow, though, I could always deal with injustice in soccer — with the penalty not called, the mispronounced off-sides, the game the team “deserved to win” but didn’t. In a way, I felt like if there is a place that could hold the world’s injustices, a soccer field could be it.

Today, the lessons come from Colombia — the country I deem my adopted home, even though I share no bloodline with it, no family relations, no legitimate, verifiable claim of calling it a home, other than the memories I have made there, and the way I feel when I’m within its borders.

There is beauty to watching a team want something, and to observing a country rally behind that want. There is genuine inspiration to watching Facebook status after Facebook status roll in, in the spirit of the democracy of jointly-commentated soccer, declaring that Colombians are proud of their national team and grateful for its victories, despite its most recent loss to Brazil.

Most critically, there is a lesson in celebration amidst the loss. Not every story about Colombia and its losses or victories has to be linked to drugs or the conflict or all the losses Colombians have suffered. Not all narratives need to be underpinned by pain or suffering to earn their ‘just’ celebration. Some days are for gratitude, for joy, for letting the sheer amazement of where we are flood the compartments. That joy does not need to be earned, nor does it need to be counterbalanced against the ills and injustices — not all the time, not in every breath. No part of me proposes that we forget the profound inequalities, silences, injustices, and forms of violence that underpin the Colombia of James and Cuadrado today.

But every part of me believes that we owe it to them, and to the joy of the Colombians who cheer them on, to celebrate them without having every sentence about them be punctuated by the country’s heartbreaking past and present. We owe to them to move beyond what Chimamanda Adichie would call ‘the danger of the single story.’ And we owe it to us to see a place, and its people, in a different light other than solely through the prism of its scars.

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