When writing my last post after being robbed in Buenos Aires I failed to appreciate how hard it is to update a blog without a laptop (one of the many things that was stolen from me that day). While I could have borrowed someone else’s machine or tortured my thumbs with some mobile phone-based updates I kind of just lost my blogging mojo.
After leaving the tax-heavy, and sadly inflation-ridden Argentina I browsed a couple of shopping malls in Chile and Ecuador before finally purchasing a shiny new Colombian laptop last week. I still have no idea, and may never find out, what half of the keys do.
Still, after a whole 80 days without a blog post I knew it would take something special to spur me into action. Watching Colombia play England in the World Cup from Cali, Colombia was exactly that – a unique and emotional experience that I will never forget.
Over a period of more than 3 months travelling in the country I have fallen in love with Colombia and particularly with its third largest city – Cali. Made notorious by the cartel wars which peaked in the 90’s, Cali still features in the Top 20 most dangerous cities in the world but is rapidly falling down that list as, like Medellin did so successfully before it, the city cleans itself up.
With most of the crime confined to distant suburbs the Cali I know – Cali, the World Capital of Salsa – is a special and very happy place. While I will save my thoughts on salsa and the unique Caleño culture for another post it is impossible to write anything about Cali without mentioning its people – warm, open and passionate, proud Caleños and proud Colombians.
Football Crazy, Fútbol Loco
I strategically timed my second visit to Colombia on this trip to coincide with the World Cup knowing that the people’s passion for football, perhaps only rivaled by Brazil and Argentina, would make it one of the best countries in the continent from which to view the tournament. Despite the 8 hour time difference to Moscow and my viewing location of choice being a shopping mall, my decision has absolutely been vindicated.
Colombia’s journey to the round of 16 (or the ‘Octavos’ as they call it – a much better name) was a roller coaster ride, with a shock loss to Japan followed by a triumphant 3-0 thrashing of Poland and a late win against Senegal. Watching these games unfold in Colombia, surrounded by Colombians, was a real privilege as they immediately welcomed me as one of their own (wearing my number 10 Colombia shirt probably helped).
As the group stage progressed I felt the inevitability of an England versus Colombia tie in the Octavos. While many people at home assumed that I would be delighted with this match-up I felt the complete opposite. It might have made for the perfect semi-final but I neither looked forward to the game nor to one of England or Colombia being eliminated at this stage.
In advance of match day I did what I thought was the obvious thing to do and bought a couple of knock-off shirts (it’s genuinely a struggle to find an original team shirt here, although I did buy my first Colombia shirt from the Adidas shop like a good boy), found a tailor and asked her to do a “cut ‘n shut” job – half England half Colombia. Deisy absolutely smashed it.
I made sure to have England on the left hand side to position the Three Lions over my heart; despite being Colombia’s number one foreign fan there was never any doubt which team I wanted to win.
While I was counselled by a number of people not to even think about wearing that shirt in public I trusted my instinct and walked through Cali’s busy city centre, only to be met by laughter, high fives and cries of “Que gane el mejor!” (May the best team win).
On arrival at the viewing location I was a mini-celebrity, posing for photos and discussing my fashion choice with the locals who all loved the 50-50 shirt. I knew this overwhelmingly positive sentiment could change at any moment so made sure to keep both a plain black t-shirt and a Colombia shirt in my bag in case of emergencies.
I would guess there were well over 500 people in that shopping centre atrium, and the noise as the teams came out was already deafening. I stood up as the Colombians blared out their national anthem, and then stayed on my feet as everyone else sat down.
My intention was to quietly sing a couple of bars of God Save The Queen and film the awkwardness before taking my seat (if you want to watch the awkward part the story is saved in Instagram highlights @odjuns). What happened after that was genuinely unexpected and very moving – when they heard me singing my solo people started clapping and encouraged me to continue. I gained confidence and blared out the last few bars to a huge round of applause, cheers and laughter from all sides.
The game was not pretty, with England playing the better football in the first half as Colombia took a very physical approach. As the half time whistle blew I was already tired from the stress of it all, making sure not to give any hint that I might be enjoying England’s attacking play.
Shortly into the second half England were awarded what seemed to me a fairly soft penalty which Harry Kane comfortably slotted away. The room went extremely quiet and I noticed a few people turning around to judge my reaction as I sat there in silence, eyes down and suppressing all inner urges.
England looked to be progressing to the quarter finals in normal time until the 93rd minute when Colombia scored from a corner and everyone around me, unsurprisingly, went absolutely bonkers.
It was an incredible moment as the sudden change in volume felt like a power surge in my brain. As I stood there filming the ensuing celebration a middle-aged man two rows ahead (white shirt and grey hair in the video above) who had been politely chatting to me before the game let the emotion get to him and started hurling abuse at me. I stared at him blankly as he unleashed his tirade. Sadly it was too noisy to hear what he said but I could see from his maniacal eyes and frothing mouth that he wasn’t being nice.
As the game went into extra time I started pondering the potential negative reaction I might receive if England were to score and win the game. While the frothy-mouthed man was an isolated example of hostility I was aware that I had effectively put a big red and white arrow above my head after singing the British national anthem in the middle of the room, just in case anyone did feel like taking out their frustrations. It had been a hard-fought and ill-tempered match with the Colombians around me convinced that the ref was a British implant, although they were arguably lucky still to have 11 men on the pitch.
During the second half of extra time the frothy-mouthed man boiled over again and launched his second assault in perfect English (something about England and/or the referee being racist). This time I told him to turn around and shut up (also in perfect English) as I eyed up my exit route, feeling very alone and very English for the first time that day. A couple of Colombians in the row behind tapped me on the shoulder, smiled and told me not to worry.
And of course it went to a penalty shootout. The inevitability of England’s impending exit slapped me in the face, but at least it might save me from the potentially less appealing consequences of an England win.
As I filmed every penalty I strained to keep my emotions in check. After the miss at 3-2, which we all assumed would signal the end of England’s campaign, the last four penalties – two England goals and two Colombia misses – passed by in a blur and suddenly, somehow, out of nowhere, England had won.
When the ball hit the back of the net for the winning penalty I sat there quietly with an ice cold facial expression and filmed the scene around me. The silence wasn’t broken until three girls behind patted me on the back and started clapping. I was then hugged, high-fived and congratulated by many Colombian well-wishers as I realised (although really I had known it all along) that everything was going to be just fine.
Happy but sad, emotionally drained and extremely thirsty I stood there in disbelief as a TV reporter asked if he could interview me. This was not my first time in front of the Colombian TV cameras; after their game against Japan I made a horrible attempt to answer questions in Spanish, but this time I did a surprisingly good job, maintaining positive intercontinental relations by explaining how much I loved Cali and Colombia.
I decided to play it safe and wear the black t-shirt for my trip home, during which I enjoyed a quiet celebratory beer with my group of non-Colombian friends. I trawled the internet for news and reports related to the England win but now wish I’d turned on the the television as I was later informed by a Colombian friend that not only had I made it onto the TV but they did a full segment on me, interview and all. I am tracking down the footage which I am told will soon be uploaded to Youtube but here is a sneak preview…
After such a ridiculous game of football and so much time spent personally under the spotlight (which I’m fully aware I brought upon myself with the peacocking) I was exhausted by the end of the day and fell into a deep sleep.
It’s Coming Home (even if I’m not)
While I was pleased to see England progress I am disappointed that I won’t get to experience any more Colombia games in this World Cup. Moreover, apart from one frothy-mouthed exception to prove the rule, I was overwhelmed by the warmth, sportsmanship and all-round great attitude the Caleños showed towards me.
Despite losing a large piece of my heart to Colombia during my travels this game confirmed that the majority still resides some 9,000km away. I am what the locals refer to as a Pitaya Amarilla (yellow dragonfruit) – yellow on the outside, white in the middle, a little bit seedy but delicious (yes I added the last two parts myself).
While football may finally be coming home I, on the other hand, am not (at least not for long). The journey goes on.