Sunday, August 8, 2010

Fútbol es Religión

In the United States, baseball is the national pastime. Basketball, volleyball, and football are sports, with off-season training camps for kids, high school and college competitions, and idolized professional players. Until, that is, they retire or make some sort of public disgrace where their physical ability is no longer what stuns us, it is instead their extra-marital affairs, use of steroids, or possible gang activity.

Ecuador, just like any other Latin American country, believes in fútbol like a religion. A ball is a toy that any child has, no matter how much they have to eat. Boys and girls kick a ball back and forth in the house, until shooed outside, where they resume in the street, or on the beach. And it's a game they never tire of, there are, of course, passing fads (such as spinning tops), but soccer is the ultimate game. Dante, a chunky two-year old in my host family, learned to kick a ball the day he learned to walk, I am certain. One of his first words was, of course, "GOOOOOOOAL!"

Every small boy is ritually dressed up in uniform, socks and cleats, like his first holy communion. Hair gelled and ears scrubbed. Fathers play on leagues to represent their children's elementary schools. Men continue to play, divided into age groups, long into their grandfatherly years, as long as they are able. Training clinics are for the more wealthy households, while every child practices daily and carefully studies the older players.

The island doesn't have a water treatment system or a wastewater treatment plant, but it does have an Olympic-style field and stadium with the only grass on the island. From Emelec, to Barcelona, to Liga, and everyone in between, each local team has loyal fans, wearing colors and waving flags, chanting songs and feeling every play in their hearts.

Deportiva Cuenca, Liga de Quito, Emelec, Barcelona, Manta, Universidad Católica de Quito, Espoli, Deportivo Quito, El Nacional, Olmedo, Macará, Independiente del Valle, and then there are the national teams and smaller teams, organized just for fun. But the competitiveness never ceases, it is a passion.

Everyone watches "the game," although which game depends on the loyalty of the household. Divided families exist, and the jeering never settles down, like arguing over politics or which type of car is best. Fútbolistas are like gladiators in the colosseums from ancient ages: racing against the others for hours on end, no armor. There is always an injury, if not many, while yellow and red cards are whipped out like religious tracts for sinners. Announcers liven up the game with commentary, shrill and rolling "r's" fire up the spectators, like a sermon about fire and brimstone. Fanatics wave flags like palm fronds at their saviors.

José told me that fútbol is the one place where everyone on the field is equal. In a match, it doesn't matter your background, your name, your job. Social and economic problems get pounded between earth and foot and passion is the only ranking factor there is. It is a welcomed avenue to release tension and stress about corrupt government, free-falling economy, or lack of education and health services. It is something to get lost in. Give your problems to God, or leave them outside the stadium, the outcome is the same: tranquility and peace.