Copa America and the Fan Ladder

Friday night, I went to a Latin dance club to learn some bachata steps, but instead found myself watching the last half of a Copa America match. Argentina was playing Panama, and let me tell you, that was a good time! The place had been taken over by Argentines in their blue and white, plus one poor Panamanian woman looking disgruntled in the corner. The club was alight with the energy only a gathering of sports fans can bring.

We found a table and sat down just as Lionel Messi blew the game wide open. He scored three goals in under 20 minutes, and taught me that a soccer “hat trick” has nothing to do with headwear. Fans in the stadium were going wild, as were fans at the bar.

Two Argentines stood on tables to cheer the first Messi goal. By the second goal, they were standing on the bar itself, waving their flags and chanting. By the third goal, one of them was running the length of the bar with a bottle of rum, pouring it into patrons’ mouths below him, his flag tied on like a cape, an unlit cigarette in his mouth. He was the hero the fans deserved that night.

I am not a soccer fan, though I really love Bend It Like Beckham, which is now a musical in London. That is exactly how we should treat all classic sports films. Rocky the Rock Opera, anyone?

As a non-soccer person, I peppered my companion with questions: “What does that card mean?” “What made that a foul?” “Why do they always fall down so dramatically?” I was rather upset that my baseball terminology didn’t translate, so I couldn’t yell “foul ball!”

But what’s amazing about sports is that their excitement is open to everyone. Of course, some sports fans would deny this–I once told someone I liked baseball, and was promptly quizzed on the blood types of the 1998 New York Yankees roster. But those fans are working off a scarcity mindset, acting as gatekeepers for a pastime that has no gates, and is meant for all. And they are also just really annoying, so don’t be like them.

There can be different levels of fans. My level of tennis fandom is intermediate to advanced, and maybe too high when it comes to Serena Williams. I am on level negative-three for golf, and level “far too patriotic” for anything to do with the Olympics. My level of soccer fandom is “I ended up watching accidentally, because I was on a date and trying to learn bachata.”

Oh, yeah, I was on a date. A first one.

No matter what hardcore gatekeepers are muttering around their gate posts, fans of all levels can embrace the energy of sporting events. My date and I cheered along, although we did not take part in the rum shots. Someone found a drum and started beating it while the bartender rang a giant bell, and the pandemonium was glorious. I love nothing more than being in the midst of that sort of excitement. I was so wrapped up in the game that I forgot I had ever wanted to learn bachata moves–everyone and everything was focused on the match and the magic of Messi.

I’m not the only one who gets caught up watching Messi’s fancy footwork. The Guardian basically wrote him a love letter:

“He’s just phenomenal, isn’t he? What a star he is. A total genius. Messi!…All that’s left now is to luxuriate in Messi’s majesty.” Oh, you cheeky British football fans!

Argentina has claimed a spot in the quarterfinals, and will be a team to watch this week. And, if you can, watch with a bunch of strangers, out in a public space. Even if you’ve never been a soccer fan, take one step onto the fan ladder,  maybe just the first step, marked “I’m here because I just really want to yell ‘gooooooooaalllll’ for five minutes.” Soak in that energy from being with fellow sports fans, no matter what fan-level they occupy. Learn something new.

And, in case you were wondering: Yes, I did finally pick up some bachata steps. Video footage is currently unavailable.

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Mary Ellen Dingley wants to watch sports with you sometime–no quizzes allowed. You should follow her on Twitter.

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