Growing up, I always figured I was a soccer fan. After all, I played soccer in the Fall and the Spring every year, almost without exception.

It wasn’t until I lived in South America, though, that I realized what being a soccer fan really was about. It certainly was a lot more than pulling up my shinguards and lacing my cleats multiple times a week. Being a fan isn’t just about you, it’s about a whole team, an entire nation, differences temporarily set aside to cheer together for the same jersey.

The World Cup took place while I was at school in South America. For the first time, I experienced the incredible passion and fervor with which the World Cup is followed by countries other than the United States. Since there were students from all over the world studying at this school, individual nationalities were celebrated as students wore their country’s colors (sometimes actually draped in flags) whenever their team was playing.

There was the painting of flags on our faces and projectors set up to watch the games on a big screen. There were both bedtimes and wake times disrupted as we all stayed up late and woke up before the sun to cheer on our teams.

The moment it really hit home that my understanding of fanship was lacking was the response a local friend of ours had when his team lost a game and their run in the World Cup was over.

He cried.

Being the sensitive friends that we were, we stood around him and gave him a few awkward pats on the back until he regained his composure.

I knew better then. The love is real. And the commitment is deep.

A couple of weeks later we found ourselves watching a game at a sports bar in the capital city. The game we had gathered to watch was a big one. The United States team was playing the last Latin team left in the cup. If the U.S. won, it meant that our team had just kicked out the last hope for a Latin win in the cup. Like I said, a big deal.

A quick assessment of the situation– It was 3 a.m. At a sports bar. The bar was so crowded we were among the overflow of fifty or so people who had to sit squeezed together outside to watch the game through the large glass windows at the front of the bar. As the only white Americans there, we stuck out like a sore thumb. Our team was ahead, likely to win, almost certainly to cause at least one crying man in the area.

This is when my U.S. friends and I held a mid-game huddle. Perhaps it wouldn’t be prudent to stick around and be the faces of victory to all those around us reeling from the loss. Such a loss following drinks and no sleep, which would not aid anyone’s judgment. We didn’t want to chance it and find out. We would get up casually and quietly, make our way to the nearest street corner and hail a cab.

We stuck around as long as we dared and then did just that. Trying not to draw any attention to ourselves, (you know, other than tripping over a metal chair and making half the outside viewers look for the source of the unwanted noise), we made our exit. A quick drive back to our hotel and we were in the clear.

Even though several years have passed since this incident, it still stands out as a favorite memory from my time in South America. Thrilling as it was at the time, our situation was probably not as precarious as we imagined. The lesson remains, though. Stay alert and make an early exit as needed.

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