Back in March, my father wanted to cry for his earthquake-ravaged country. Last week, he cheered as Chile won its second World Cup game, a critical match against Switzerland and advanced to the round of 16 despite losing to Spain. Before its opening match, La Roja hadn't won a World Cup game since 1962, the same year Chile hosted the tournament. Then, my father was a 20-year-old police officer patrolling Viña del Mar's Sausalito Stadium during games, just a little younger than current Chilean soccer star Alexis Sanchez, whom they call "El Nino Maravilla," or Boy Wonder.
It's been an exciting ride, and I'm not just talking about Chile's impressive performance during this World Cup, coming after a twelve-year absence. The years I've spent rooting for Chile with my father have taught me the joys and pains of supporting a perpetual underdog, not unlike cheering for South America's equivalent of the Mets, a team with loads of potential and fiercely loyal fans despite years of disappointment. Of course, it's a little different when that team also represents your DNA.
Soccer has always been a major part of my relationship with my father. While I'd thought of the sport as a way to understand a father who often seemed elusive, I've realized that it helped us both satisfy our craving to connect with Chile itself, a place I'd never visited and one he'd left 35 years ago.
With so few Chileans in the United States, feeling pride in my heritage required extra effort. Growing up in a Caribbean-dominated New York, many people didn't even know where Chile was. I persisted with patient explanations. "It's in South America, near Argentina?" I culled my knowledge of Chile from encyclopedias, a beat-up atlas, and my father's stories. My father's frustrations ran deeper. Life had made going back to Chile even for a visit impossible. There was never enough money, four daughters to provide for, a wife who died prematurely, and his own cancer diagnoses. Dad has now lived in the U.S. longer than his native country, but he'll be the first to tell you that, among other things, the Chile he remembers had the best food, wine, women, poets, cities, beaches, subways, and soccer players. His diligence in relaying news of all things Chilean -- factoids about Chilean media personalities, current events, history, food, and the triumphs of its soccer players -- revealed a hunger for Chile's recognition that sometimes bordered on desperation.
Soccer became a reliable source of pride, and over the years my father followed Chilean soccer players like Iván Zamorano, Marcelo Salas, and Humberto "Chupete" Suazo, and reported on their individual successes as they played on teams across Latin America and Europe. I noticed early on that my father's stresses melted away during a televised soccer game. Pure joy radiated from his face as he clapped, jumped, and screamed with excitement. I soon learned to take advantage of this opportunity and began watching games with my father while stories flowed about his difficult life growing up in Chile and his delight in kicking around a homemade soccer ball fashioned from pantyhose stuffed with cheap fabric, a brief but sweet escape from his alcoholic parents.
Our latest celebration of Chile's success was a subdued affair compared to the noisy revelry I witnessed after Brazil's victory over Ivory Coast guaranteed their advancement. Carloads of ecstatic Brazilians whizzed by with flags streaming from their windows, whooping, blowing whistles, and furiously honking their car horns. Instead my father donned a red shirt to represent his country's team colors, with the quiet understanding that you can take nothing for granted and must appreciate the things that can get lost in the final score if you're not careful, like your team's energy and attacking spirit, every swift pass and each gorgeous goal. In the round of 16 Chile faces the dreaded Brazil. But win or not, sharing the game with my father and his love of Chilean soccer has taught me patience, loyalty, and to always savor the beautiful moments in between.