Soccer has always had a special place in my life, both in the country where I was born and in my adopted country. When I was a boy I lived for school and for soccer. It was the strongest connection I had with my father, who traveled all the time. He was the one who taught me to play and to love soccer and to be a loyal supporter of the Independiente club team. My father was a passionate fan of the Diablos Rojos and I remember him telling me about the exploits of his countryman, Erico, the Paraguayan forward who brought so much glory to this team from Avellaneda in the nineteen-forties. As we drank our mate, we listened to the Sunday games transmitted by Fioravanti on Radio Chaco; it made us feel like we were right there on the field.
The most memorable moments of my childhood in Resistencia, Chaco, are related to soccer: the Number-5 leather soccer ball that was my coming-of-age gift when I turned ten, and the championships played on the Pellegrini field and at the Don Bosco School, including that unforgettable game where our neighborhood team lost in the final moments when we were "robbed" by the organizers' favorite team. In spite of the miles that separate us, some of my teammates from back then have become my friends for life.
When I was in school in Philadelphia, two other chaquenos and I played on Sundays in the "international" league on a team from the Italian neighborhood. I met some of my best friends--boys and girls--through soccer in those days. They were from everywhere: Argentina, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Uruguay, and other countries. Soccer was not only my favorite sport, it also enriched my life and took the edge off that loneliness and uprootedness you feel when you are living in another culture with another language. Soccer was my connection to the country and to my family and it contributed to my sense of identity and belonging. It made life less difficult.
Today in Washington, D.C., I watch Argentinean soccer on television every Sunday with my daughters. We follow the Argentinean teams in the Libertador Cup and the South America Cup. Sometimes we go to the stadium and watch the city team, DC United. But the best thing is that my daughters are playing on girls teams at school and in a regional league soccer club. Here, women play soccer, and these Yankees are world champions! There are soccer fields all over the place; my daughters play on weekends anywhere within a 125 mile radius of our home. Like many of the players' parents, my wife and I always go to their games.
But soccer has its detractors in this country. They are people who don't know soccer from the inside; they don't have it in their blood. They say the sport is for crybabies, cheaters, and fakers who are always trying to trick the referees into calling a penalty or giving a warning to the opposing team. Some argue that soccer unleashes passions and provokes antagonisms and conflicts between groups and nations. Others point to European fanatics from various countries, who--with their aggressive behavior and chauvinistic World War II era chants--have caused tension in the European and World Cups. They point out that soccer teams were used to spread xenophobia in Serbia and Croatia during the wars of the nineties. …