ROSARIO — It was only mildly shocking to see a group of American college students decked out in the sky-blue-and-white-striped jerseys of the Argentine national team. After all, drinking and college kids go together perfectly, and during the World Cup it’s hard not to get into the spirit of whatever place you are visiting.
What is more shocking is when one of those students finds himself on a side trip to Uruguay and stops to watch little kids playing soccer. It’s a nice neighborhood of town, and the two children could certainly have their pick of whatever jersey they desired.
Yet after a moment’s pause, what the student realizes is that prepubescent child of Montevideo has not asked for one of the heroes of his home country. He hasn’t even asked for one of the jerseys of a rival South American side, or one of the ubiquitous club jerseys from one of Europe’s powerhouses.
It isn’t the 7 of Cristiano Ronaldo, the 9 of Luis Suarez, the 10 of Lionel Messi, or the 11 of Arjen Robben that the Uruguayan child has chosen. Rather than one of these international superstars, he is sporting the 8 of Clint Dempsey. Instead of the sky blue of Uruguay, the blue-and-white of Rioplatense rivals Argentina, or even the canary yellow of Brazil, the kid is donning the white jersey of the U.S. men’s national team.
What does this all mean? Perhaps it was just a fluke, a trick on the eyes that managed to get captured on camera. Maybe, like all the Americans in Messi jerseys, he had visited the United States recently and had latched on to one of the most recognizable names on the American roster.
Or perhaps it speaks to a world where anyone can track a favorite team from anywhere in the world irrespective of where one is born or local proclivity. When World Cup matches are just the quadrennial icing on the soccer fan’s cake, a diversion from the ubiquitous nonstop cycle of club coverage available from any continent to potential viewers on any continent, these identities melt away and we are left to root for whatever feels right in the moment.
My time abroad is almost complete, with less than 48 hours now standing between me and the airplane that will send me homeward bound. And if there is one thing that six weeks in Argentina has taught me, it is that we live in an ever-shrinking world of sports fanaticism. In a 21st century marked by technological advances and blurred borders, fanhood is less of a birthright and more of a choice than ever before.
Since being here I have watched tennis and rugby, soccer and Formula 1, basketball and cycling. I have seen highlights of baseball games thanks to a few ardent supporters on the study-abroad program. I have been able to keep up with all my favorite pastimes from home as well as a global glut of action. And I have had discussions about all of these sports and more with the local populace.
One can be an NFL fan in Argentina, apparently, when I look back to the conversation I had with a guy sporting a Philadelphia Eagles hat on my first week in Rosario. He was as up to speed about Chip Kelly, LeSean McCoy, and Nick Foles as most Americans I know.
There was the young student who approached my friend and I as we walked down the stairs of the Parque de España one Sunday afternoon, having heard us speaking English and wanting to talk basketball. (Spoiler… he was a Miami Heat fan rather than a supporter of Manu Ginobili’s Spurs.)
And then there was the vendor along the river selling bootleg hats of American sports teams. He didn’t exactly manage to get everything perfect — apparently the “EATTLE MARINERS” wear red and yellow — but the fact that there was even even a market for this gear to make the effort spoke more than the shoddiness of the execution.
While soccer remains king in South America, the sports world is far more diverse than one might have expected to experience — especially when the entire world has shut down for the World Cup. I’ll take away from Argentina more than just the Di Maria jersey I bought one day on the street. What will stick with me long after the letters and the 7 have faded, and long after the Uruguayan boy at the Montevideo Yacht Club outgrows his Dempsey jersey, is the memory that sports are the great equalizer. While they provide the opportunity to exhibit nationalistic tendencies, they also have the power to melt away borders and create a common bond between divergent cultures.