Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
I wasn’t a big soccer guy growing up, but that changed pretty quickly when I studied abroad in Argentina my junior year of college.
In part, because soccer is an integral part of South American culture, and I wanted to immerse myself.
And, in part, because there was nothing else on TV.
A little rugby, maybe, but other than that: fútbol, fútbol, fútbol. Once I watched something called soccer-tennis, which is exactly what you think it is.
My roommate and I even put our Spanish to the test and bought some tickets to a local game off a scalper. The Boca Juniors, our adopted home team, were drawn to a 0-0 tie — soccer is soccer, no matter where you play it — but it was quite the experience. The Boca fans, decked in blue and yellow, stood the whole game. Some even hung from poles. And they never stopped singing a song mocking their rivals — who they weren’t even playing! — for being temporarily relegated to a lower division two years ago. The opposing team’s fans were caged off by barbed wire and set off flares during the game.
It was insane. And awesome.
But we never got to see La Albiceleste, the Argentine national team. With what could have only been a touch of added-time magic, however, we got a second chance. The team was scheduled to play a friendly against Bosnia-Herzegovina at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, my home town.
I wasn’t missing this one.
My roommate and I bought tickets and trekked from Mizzou to St. Louis in hopes of a large dose of study-abroad nostalgia. But what stuck with me most from that cold November night had nothing to do with Argentina. (And not just because Argentine legend Lionel Messi missed the match due to injury.)
No, instead of being reminded of my time in South America months ago, I was transported back to my elementary school years in south St. Louis County.
You see, St. Louis has the largest population of Bosnians of any city not named Sarajevo. More than 30,000 Bosnians moved to St. Louis in the early 1990s, a time of war and turmoil in the former Yugoslavia.
I sat next to them in class and ate lunch and played kickball with them but never thought much of the fact that they moved to my neck of the woods from a country that doesn’t even exist anymore. I thought it was interesting that their parents spoke a different language to them at home, but that’s about it.
Twenty-two-year-old me understood a little more of what was going on, of what these people went through and what violence their country endured.
And it made the sight at Busch Stadium all the more meaningful. It was cool to see their blue-and-yellow trucks fill the parking lots outside the stadium, blaring native music. It was cool to see Bosnian jerseys fill Busch Stadium, even if it meant that my friend and I were significantly in the minority. It was even cool to see the Dragons hang tight with Argentina, though the Messi-less Albiceleste persevered in the end.
The coolest thing to see? That soccer-manic passion I witnessed in South America was just as vivid thousands of miles north. Heck, they even had the flares. (No idea know how they got those in the stadium.)
These weren’t just Bosnians. They were St. Louisans, they were my neighbors. And these were people with a reason to cheer on their homeland.
Today that excitement will continue when Bosnia makes its World Cup debut (4:30 on ESPN). So if you’re less than enthralled with your U.S. team — what with its ruthless placement in Group G and its lack of Landon Donovan — and you need another squad to ignite your soccer fever, maybe give Bosnia-Herzegovina a try.
As for me? I won’t be rooting for the Dragons. Not today, at least.
I mean, they’re playing Argentina.