Being a soccer fan in the United States is not easy. We willingly give up our Saturday mornings to the catch the excitement of the English Premier League (and, unless we are lucky enough to be Leicester fans, sometimes just roll back to sleep instead), and wrangle two-hour Wednesday lunch breaks when the Champions League rolls around. When the World Cup was in the punishing time zone of Japan and South Korea, I went the full month waking up at 1:30 am to watch every game. Despite it being summer break, I was meant to be cramming for the SATs, but nothing was going to stop me from the drama and exhilaration of the beautiful game. We sacrifice for our lunacy- I mean, love.
Following MLS is much simpler, of course. But supporting a club in the Premier League, the Bundesliga, even Serie A – that’s a breeze compared to other leagues. Being a fan of fútbol, and here I mean the very specific subset of fútbol known as the Uruguayan Primera División, requires not only sacrifice, but a willingness to stream websites from dubious sources, in return receiving low-quality images and commentary in languages you can only guess at. When friends ask “why?” often the question is answered with little more than a shrug, as you watch your teams play on tattered pitches, send their best players to Mexico and Brazil, or get into raging fights that result in a game ending in a 9 versus 9 match.
My mother was born in Flushing, Queens. She’s a nominal Mets fan (I’ll take your condolences at any time). My father was born in Minas, a freckle of a town in the polka-dot of a country that is Uruguay. For anyone with even a drop of Uruguayan blood coursing Celeste blue through our veins, you know what this means: I’ve been worshipping at the temple of fútbol since before I could pronounce “Francéscoli,” waking up for that 7 am Tottenham game because Spurs were the first in the EPL to contract an Uruguayan player (Gus Poyet, for the, well, if not the actual win, then emotional win!), then following “my” Charrúas wherever they play, across the globe. Because that word, Charrúa, is the seeming answer to the lunacy, to those 9 v 9 matches, maybe even, though you didn’t ask, to Luis Suárez’s (in)famously carnivorous appetite.
If you’ve ever heard Ray Hudson celebrate a Suárez goal, you’ve heard his impossibly hoarse voice scream about the “garra Charrúa,” that untenable spirit passed on from Uruguay’s indigenous natives- fierce, proud, and gone- who embody tiny Uruguay, nestled forever among its bigger, stronger neighbors. The country gets battered when Argentina’s economy suffers, is thrown into decades of military dictatorship when Chile undergoes a coup, is pulled along by the ups and downs of Brazil’s inflation drama. Fútbol, though, is where Uruguay thrives, unbowed, the stars on our sky-blue jerseys representing World Cups and championships matching or even overshadowing the South American countries always mentioned on the news. We don’t care; we play on, gritty, yes, by the skin of our teeth, by our teeth if we have to, because if fútbol is the only thing we have, we have it best.
Like Uruguay itself, we fanáticos carry on, searching for news about Peñarol or Wanderers or our tiny Fénix. Expiring with joy when Diego Forlán comes home to score the most goals in the same season that his Peñarol, the same club his father and grandfather played for, get their new stadium. Cheering like mad when River Plate qualifies for South America’s Copa Libertadores. Crying together when Álvaro Recoba takes his last bow with Nacional after eleven years.
On Facebook and Twitter pages light up sky blue, the same color seen in the tiny pockets of soccer bars where we call the bartenders in advance, asking to make sure that they are, indeed, really, going to show the game, that game, our Uruguay game. We Celeste fans may never outnumber the fanáticos of our rivals, or even the casual soccer fan come to watch Messi play for Argentina, but we are a fierce little tribe in the diaspora of traveling support. Identifying each other by the regional accents praying for a solid defense, our teeth gritted in hope and fear, by the time the game-time whistle blows, we are huddled together in a group of newly-formed friends, leaning against one other for support when the ball threatens to go anywhere near our goal, and screaming for joy in every language we share when Uruguay score.
Speaking of joy and Diego Forlán (Oh come on, you knew that was coming, you’ve seen the pictures, golden locks flowing behind those perfectly sculpted cheekbones, perfectly sculpted abs and…I have to stop typing the words “perfectly” and “sculpted.” I have to get out of these parentheses).
Ok, we’re back.
Let’s talk about Diego Forlán, shall we? All of Uruguay knows his story. His father Pablo and grandfather Juan Carlos were fútbol players, talented and well-known in their own rights, but Diego didn’t find his true passion for the sport until his sister was paralyzed in a car accident with a drunk driver. At the time, teenage Diego was a promising young tennis player, playing in Montevideo and looking to continue the Forlán sporting dynasty, albeit in a different sport.
Tragedy struck when Alejandra Forlán, riding in a car driven by her boyfriend, was hit by a drunk driver; at the time, an all-too common occurrence in Uruguay. In intensive care for five months, her medical bills piled up. Teenage Diego promised his sister he’d pay her bills and cover the care she would need as a paraplegic. Exchanging his tennis racket for fútbol boots, Forlán never looked back, signing with his father’s former club, and scoring 37 goals in his 80 appearances for Argentina’s Independiente. He also took a position on the board of the Fundación Alejandra Forlán, using his profile to raise awareness for safe driving practices, using it to benefit his sister and his country. In Uruguay, when one member of the Forlán family is honored, all are in the picture.
Forlán is emblematic of Uruguayan fútbol, virtually unstoppable when his streak is burning. When at Villarreal, he won the Spanish Pichichi twice, and lifted the Golden Ball at the 2010 World Cup, when he hauled his Uruguayan squad to a fourth place finish to the rapturous shock of the entire nation. Manchester United fans still sing about “Diego, who came to England and made the Scousers cry.” When Forlán plays well, every ball that touches his boot seems destined for goal, and every one of his teammates finds their own stunning inspiration from their mentor.
Then, as though he’s symbolizing the sporting story of his country, Forlán falters, the ball polarized against the magnet of his foot, and neither his talent nor his gritty garra Charrúa are sufficient to quench his drought.
He scored in his debut for Inter in 2011 and then just once over his next 21 appearances. He then moved on to Japan, where he spent a season floundering in the wilderness (Japanese fútbol fans, you can come at me for this statement, but whether this is another case of games being played at crazy-o-clock EST or Forlán’s Cerezo Osaka being relegated to the second division J League, I stand to be corrected). When, at the age of 35, Forlán announced his retirement from international play, most people expected his career to come to a sad end (some of those people were thankful that they, at least, had a clock in their rooms with his face on it…those flowing locks…).
Four months after his international retirement, though, Diego came home, to Uruguay and to Peñarol, the first team his father had played for, where he himself had played as a boy. On the field in the Estadio Centenario, the site of the very first World Cup (spoiler alert: Uruguay won), Forlán joined a squad of players who mostly make up Uruguay’s youth squad. He stands out not for his age, not even for those- I’m going to say it one last time- beautiful, shining, well-conditioned (it’s the water, so good for curly hair) locks, but for the undeniable talent that has seen him score hat-tricks, lead the league in assists, and prompt all of Uruguay to clamor for him to rejoin the national team. When Peñarol played their first match in their brand-new stadium, it was Diego Forlán who scored their first goal. Forlán, like Enzo Francéscoli or Alcides Ghiggia before him, is both talent and talisman, adored for his goals and for the spirit of the sport that he represents.
Fútbol. It eats at our sleep schedules. It nibbles at our social lives. It’s a crazy time-suck that makes mothers mourn our ever meeting or maintaining boyfriends. And yet it’s worth every one of those times we save up all of our miles to fly to Uruguay for a weekend to watch a qualifying match against Venezuela. Because, even if we lose, and spend the rest of the week jet-lagged and worried about the threat of having to play a fifth-place match against Australia, when else would we be able to say that we got to see Diego, our Diego, fly down the pitch at the Estadio Centenario and curve the ball into the goal, the Montevideo sky behind him light up in corresponding blue and white, as we jumped and screamed and hugged a thousand strangers who were strangers no more?
That’s the beauty and magic of fútbol.