SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador- “We are routing for the team with the same shirts as us,” I was dutifully told as I glanced down at the red and blue vertically striped jersey that covered my torso and then back up to find the players on the television screen who were wearing the same colors. I found them, and then tried to time my cheers appropriately.
My cousin had dressed me up to match him in the colors of the Barcelona soccer team, and brought me with him to watch one of the biggest soccer games of the year with his friends in El Salvador. Dressed as twins, we were sitting in a house that had been converted into an impromptu bar just for the showing of the Spanish league game — Barcelona was pretty much playing for the championship against Madrid. The house was full of at least 70 to 100 Salvadoran soccer fans. At least a quarter of them were also our twins.
“This game is going to bring the country to a halt,” my cousin warned before the match. “Half the country is for Barcelona, the other half for Madrid.”
These two Spanish soccer teams are by far the most popular teams in El Salvador — far more popular than the Salvadoran club teams, vastly more popular than even the national team itself. El Salvador is a Spanish league country, and Barcelona and Madrid are the teams that the people of the country divide themselves between. A casual walk down the aisles of the downtown markets is enough to see that a lot of Spanish league soccer paraphernalia is being sold: San Salvador clothing markets are all blue and red, and white.
My jersey showed that I was a part of a group, a social sector, a tribe: I was showing that I was a fan of a certain soccer team, and that I was therefore in the same corner as anybody else wearing the same colors, or cheering for those clad in the same uniform. Blue and red were the color stripes that ran vertically down my torso as I too cheered with those dressed as me.
“I like Barcelona because they are from Catalonia, they are the separatists, they are the revolutionaries,” my cousin spoke. It was my assumption that Madrid was the opposite of this description — Madrid was Spanish, the oppressors, the conservatives. El Salvador is still a country that is also divided along similar lines.
“Are you going for Barcelona?” one of our friends asked a Salvadoran man in Spanish. He answered that he was. My cousin then corrected our friend’s Spanish: “It is not ‘Are you going for Barcelona’ the question is ‘Are you Barcelona.'” For on the soccer pitch is where person definition is often found.
We — as in Barcelona — suddenly scored a goal.
“That was good,” my cousin then spoke, “because now we know who is going for what team.”
As I looked out upon the room of soccer fans, half of them were standing up cheering, the other half were sitting down sulking. The tribal lines were now clearly drawn, everybody knew where everybody else stood.
The table I was sitting at was for Barcelona, we confirmed our mutual affiliation by toasting our beers after the goal. I became aware that I was now part of a group, I was treated like every other Barcelona fan. I have tattoos running down my arms and hands and neck, I am from another country, and I could only speak the local language with the finesse of a three year old, but I was taken as a part of the team: I was Barcelona, too.
I was wearing the jersey to prove it.
As the ball rolled across the television screen, as more beers rolled across our table, the team bonds grew. When ever Barcelona did something good, Barcelona fans would come up to our table to congratulate ourselves, we would tip our beers to other members of our group from across the room. People who probably would not have ordinarily talked to me, were all of a sudden shaking my hand, pointing at my tattoos, talking about the Barcelona soccer team.
Barcelona was us, Madrid was The Other.
We made fun of Madrid’s best player, Ronaldo. He became the object of our jeers, his face came to represent that which we despised — he was the face of the other side, the face of what we were not. We called him pretty boy, we called him pussy. We laughed each time he got stuffed by our goalie, the Barcelona fans in the front of the room would stick up their middle fingers at him each time he appeared on the television screen — we gleaned off a sense of satisfaction by looking at the frustration on his face.
Ronaldo was them.
The best player on the Barcelona team was named Lionel Messi. He was young, he was said to be modest, quiet — a good guy and the best soccer player in the world — Messi scored the first goal of the game.
Messi was us.
Everyone was a complete stranger to me, but for the moments of combat we were all one team — we were all on the same side. The camaraderie felt good, a human need was momentarily fulfilled — I had a group, a team, a tribe: I looked like my kind, and I acted like my kind.
For a couple of hours, I was a soccer fan. For a couple hours, I was Barcelona.
Then I returned home, peeled of the Barcelona jersey, tossed it on the couch, and returned to the comfortable pedestal of the unaffiliated. I was no longer an “us,” I was no longer a “them,” I returned to being the “in-between.” I am a traveler who knows that it sometimes feels real good to pretend to be a part of a group, to wear mutual colors, to have a team, to give fire to tribal passions, and then to forget about it all, put on my standard plaid shirt, and travel on to the next place where I may again put on some jersey and be told what team to route for.