A family in matching blue scarves hunted for a Starbucks at the corner of 6th and Union. Three teenagers wandered Seattle Center wrapped in homemade Argentina flags. A telltale jersey peeked out of an overcoat on the monorail.
It was hard to miss the sky blue soccer jerseys on Seattle’s streets this week as fans of La Albiceleste — the Argentine national soccer team — were out in force to celebrate their number-one-ranked team’s visit to CenturyLink Field last night to play Bolivia as part of the Copa America Centenario.
At the stadium, an announced crowd of 45,753 was clearly on the Argentine side, with chants of “Messi! Messi!” breaking out periodically.
I had a strong cheering section behind me in the form of Landon and Andy Muzio, brothers from Kamloops, British Columbia with Argentine parents, who both brought their families and shouted encouragement in Canadian-inflected Spanish.
“Ever since we were born, we lived and breathed Maradona and Batistuta. My kids here love Messi and we promised that whenever Argentina comes close to Kamloops, we’ll drop everything we’re doing and we’ll come,” Landon told me. “So everyone is risking their job, we came here as a family to watch this. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. We just want Messi to come out so we can see him in the flesh.”
The Muzios got their wish after halftime.
The star didn’t play in his first Copa America game because of a recent injury and was on the field for only 20 minutes in Argentina’s second match. But in Seattle, he started the second half, eliciting huge cheers every time he touched the ball. Although goalless, he displayed some fancy footwork, including a nutmeg (ball through the legs move) on the hapless Bolivian goalie — though the play was ruled offsides.
The scene around Seattle leading up to the match was like a mini version of what I witnessed in Rio de Janeiro in 2014, when a caravan of 100,000 Argentines made the 1,000-plus mile trek overland for the World Cup final.
They cavorted around Rio taunting Brazilian fans, who had just lost in the infamous 7-1 semi-final against Germany, sang the praises of Maradona and Pope Francis, and some even camped on Copacabana Beach, scandalizing the neighborhood’s affluent residents.
Last night the stakes were a lot lower — Argentina had already qualified for the knockout stage and Bolivia was already eliminated.
But you could still spot Argentina fans in Seattle for Copa America taking in the view from atop the Space Needle, and a TV crew from Córdoba crowded behind me in the lunch line at Jack’s Fish Spot, eager for a zoom-in on a plate of salmon fish and chips fresh out of the fryer. (No, I don’t haunt every Seattle tourist attraction on a typical Tuesday, but I had visiting soccer fans in town myself to show around.)
Although going home empty-handed, there was a small but spirited Bolivian crowd at the match as well, some with local ties. Pamela Maure married a U.S. citizen and moved to Seattle two years ago. She was thrilled to see her home country in her new hometown.
“It’s very exciting because this is the first time Bolivia has come to Seattle,” she said, a ’94 World Cup vintage bomber jacket with ‘Bolivia’ stitched on the sleeve keeping her warm on the cool summer night. “Whatever happens, we support them through good times and bad.”
These stories were more common than fans who traveled from Argentina or Bolivia just for the tournament — not surprising given that of the host cities, Seattle is the furthest destination from Latin America.
Moreover, tickets averaged well over $100 a pop amidst a strong U.S. dollar and a Latin American economic downturn.
Indeed, some have criticized the Copa America Centenario as an overpriced, ill-timed marketing gimmick. There was a Copa America just last year in Chile as part of the tournament’s typical quadrennial cycle.
Why the back-to-back contests? This year is the 100th anniversary of the South American soccer federation CONMEBOL, so the sports world powers-that-be decided to join forces with the North American soccer federation CONCACAF and host a joint tournament in the U.S.
So is the Copa America Centenario another way to wring more money out of soccer fans and pad the pockets of FIFA and its corrupt henchmen? Probably. But it’s also a chance for the U.S. to audition for another bid at hosting the World Cup, and a subtle reminder that this country already has the necessary infrastructure, which would avoid the gross human rights violations currently underway in 2022 host country Qatar.
The Copa America Centenario also comes at a poignant time politically, a reminder that “America” means much more than just the United States, despite what presidential candidates on the left and right intone. Sixteen foreign flags flew from the Hawk’s Nest while Argentines from Portland or California mingled with fellow Latin Americans who have a shared love for Messi. The game was also hopefully a harbinger of a normalized multicultural future, one where last night’s bilingual announcing alongside signage in Spanish and Portuguese are unremarkable and uncontroversial.
Tomorrow night, Team USA comes to town for a quarterfinal matchup against Ecuador in what some are calling the “biggest match in Seattle soccer history.”
Whoever you root for between now and the tournament final at the end of the month, just remember: They’re all our fellow Americans.