Among the Colombians

Among the Colombians: Matthew Yeomans watches the Colombia-England match from a bar stool in Jackson Heights, N.Y.

Published June 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

JACKSON HEIGHTS, N.Y. June 26: As you walk down Roosevelt Avenue, the world changes before your eyes. The round lettering of the many Korean restaurants and beauty boutiques that line the sides of this major artery of Queens dissolve around 75th Street into a claustrophobic assortment of cheap clothing stores, long-distance telephone booths and stark Latino restaurants, their windows steaming up from the heat of the empanadas and papas relleno prominently displayed to entice.

Ecuadoreans, Argentines, Bolivians and, most recently, Mexicans have made Jackson Heights their home. But today, only one country matters.

"Co-lom-bi-a, Co-lom-bi-a," is the cry from the cars as they crawl down Roosevelt Avenue; cumbia is the music that pounds from their car stereos, cranked to fever pitch to drown out the rumble of the elevated No. 7 subway train overhead. This afternoon only one country matters, because Colombia is about to play England in its final first-round game of the World Cup. If Colombia wins, it will advance. Anything less and it's going home.

The police are taking no chances. Barricades have been erected for blocks along Roosevelt Avenue to hem in supporters and prevent a repeat of four years ago, when jubilant Colombian supporters, celebrating their team's victory over Argentina in a warm-up game on the eve of the 1994 World Cup, swelled into the streets and brought Jackson Heights to a standstill. Today, a phalanx of cops -- taking time out from implementing Mayor Giuliani's latest master plan -- patrols the streets.

The 1994 World Cup was supposed to have been Colombia's year. Four years before, it had qualified for the Cup for only the second time in its history with a team of young stars, including clown-wigged midfield guru Carlos Valderrama, powerhouse striker Freddy Rincon and goalkeeper Rene "El Loco" Higuita. That year, Colombia made it to the second round. Three years later it trounced Argentina once more, this time 5-0, and arrived at USA '94 as the critic's favorites. Then it all went wrong. Rumors flew that key members of the team had been told not to play well by Colombian drug barons betting against the team; then Colombia lost 2-0 to the United States in that fateful game at the Rose Bowl in which defender Andreas Escobar scored a goal for the wrong side. Colombia was eliminated in the first round, and days after the team returned home, Escobar was gunned down outside a bar. Now, in 1998, after losing 1-0 to Romania and beating Tunisia by the same score, Colombia is under pressure once again.

No more keenly is the pressure felt than in La Chibcha, a cavernous Colombian coastal restaurant on Roosevelt Avenue at 80th Street, complete with booths fitted into a multicolored Cheever "Ranchero" truck that is parked at the side of the bar. The crowd of some 300 is buzzing as the clock ticks down to kickoff. Stocky, fresh-faced young men talk feverishly about the drama about to unfold. Fathers and mothers bounce excited young children on their knees -- the kids' faces brightly painted in the yellow, blue and red of Colombia. Extra rows of seating line what would normally be the dance floor. All through La Chibcha, Colombian flags are raised and cheers go up as the local Univision television crew feeds live shots from the restaurant to the pregame show coming from Miami. As the DJ pumps out the intoxicating Vallenato beat of Colombian folk hero Carlos Vives, the crowd sings along and one man, his hair tied back in a brilliant yellow bandanna, gets up and exhorts his fellow fans to dance.

On three giant screens, the fans watch their longtime heroes
Valderrama and Rincon -- both playing in their third and final World Cup --
warming up. The cameras pan to the stands where a mass of all-male
English fans cheer, their white and red painted faces complementing their mostly
sunburned pink torsos. The comparison with the fans in La Chibcha couldn't be more striking. Both are celebrating game and country. But while
the English contingent are "on tour," promoting their sometimes misguided
national pride as if it were an export business, New York's expatriate
Colombian community is looking home, not abroad, and finding, in its World
Cup team, a sense of identity and cohesion with a land left behind.

This sense of identity is a subplot to the World Cup being played out all
over New York this summer. From Colombians in Jackson Heights to Mexicans
in Sunset Park, to the disparate English community that takes over
Manhattan's sports bars every time England plays, New York's immigrant
cultures take time out from being New Yorkers and reaffirm their original
identities. The city is abuzz with talk of the Coupe du Monde. So far
this summer, I've had tactical chats with my Yugoslavian super, endured the
tunnel-vision logic of the Argentine short-order chef at the local
diner and been abused daily by the Aussies in my corner deli, jealous that
their team didn't qualify. The U.S. may be out of the World Cup, but New
York is still mad for it.

Back in La Chibcha, the crowd is scooping up prematch Budweiser and
Heineken promotional freebies from two companies that appreciate a strong
market when they see one. As the match kicks off, only one question
remains. Will Colombia win? Rafael Duque, a native of Cali who came to
New York just last year, is sure. "Colombia have the motivation to go and
win," he says with quiet confidence. All week, the talk has been of the
team's errant genius, Faustino Asprilla, who has been kicked off the squad
by coach Hernan Dario Gomez, for criticizing tactics (though he quickly
apologized and begged to be brought back). Tino, as he is known, is the one
player who can set Colombia alight; plus he knows today's opposition
because he played last season for Newcastle United in the English Premier
League. Rafael is unfazed by the dilemma. "It doesn't matter about Tino,"
he says with a smile. "We still have good players."

In front of me, a woman turns around and starts chatting. "Are you from
Colombia?" she asks. No, I reply, I'm from Wales. "Why are you here
then?" It's a good question. Before the game, I was convinced that,
watching the game in a Colombian bar, I wouldn't really care if England won
or not. Now, with the match under way and the tension mounting, it's
obviously going to be more difficult than I first thought. Actually, it's
tough being Welsh. If you're a Scot, it's simple. Basically, you hate
England -- whatever the situation, whatever the sport. But I've always been a
little schizophrenic when it comes to England. Growing up, my Welsh
nationalism was only as strong as the strength of the Welsh team. Rugby was
easy: For nearly a decade in the 1970s Wales was untouchable and England
the laughingstock of the world. Even now that the situation has pretty
much been reversed, I still could never bring myself to support England. But
football was always different. For whatever reason, when England plays
football, I put on hold my distaste for that snooty, misplaced sense of
superiority that so many English adopt in addressing their Celtic
neighbors. Hence I've cheered on England in World Cups since 1982 without
ever feeling I've sold out my homeland.

Though I can't subdue my guilty loyalty, it seems tactful not to scream
too loudly in La Chibcha. Then England scores, a searing close-quarter shot
from winger Darren Anderton that rockets into the top of the net. Inside,
I jump for joy; outside, I give a half smile. This is going to be hard.

Then, just before the end of the first half, David Beckham, poster pin-up
of the English team and fiancé of Posh Spice no less, sends a free kick
curling into the right corner of Colombian goalie Mondragon's net. "Yes!" I
cry out among the collective groan of the crowd -- causing a few
puzzled Colombian supporters to stare at the traitor in their midst.

My moment of jubilation marks the beginning of the end for Colombia. From
that point on the team fades away and the crowd gradually loses interest in
the game. "Disappointed, very disappointed," is all one fan will say
afterward. Outside La Chibcha, a few dozen supporters crowd around a
television camera broadcasting postgame reactions, but Colombia's bubble
has been burst. In Jackson Heights, New York, life returns, at least until
Colombia's independence celebrations at the end of July. And World Cup
fever moves south to the streets of Brooklyn's Sunset Park, where Mexican
fans are preparing for their country's biggest game in a decade -- a second-round encounter with Germany.

By Matthew Yeomans

Matthew Yeomans is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. He writes for Condi Nast Traveler, GQ and Details.

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