En español | When it comes to fútbol, Harold Hall is and always will be a Catracho. Born in Honduras, Hall has lived most of his life in the United States, is a proud U.S. citizen, and has raised five children in Chicago.
But some of the 52-year-old’s fondest memories of growing up are of kicking a soccer ball around barefooted with his brothers on the unpaved streets of his native El Progreso. “I can never forget where I come from,” says the self-admitted “soccer freak.” “I love this country; I’ve lived here 37 years. But if you ask me who I’m rooting for, it’s Honduras.”
The soccer fanático follows the Honduran National Team religiously and has even driven cross-country to attend its games. He was thrilled that his team would be squaring off against the United States June 6 in a World Cup qualifying match in Chicago. Hall, whose grandfather was English, is a leader in the local Honduran community. He expected buses loaded with Honduran fans from throughout the country to descend Soldier Field for the big game. He wasn’t disappointed: thousands of Hondurans living in the United States dressed in blue and white showed up, outnumbering U.S. fans by a four to one margin, according to the Associated Press.
But the turnout—and his own son’s homemade cape of blue and white—couldn’t guarantee a Honduras win. The U.S. National Team came from behind to beat Honduras 2-1. After going down to an early goal, the United States stormed back, winning on a goal by team captain Carlos Bocanegra. “It was a beautiful experience seeing so many people screaming ‘Honduras! Honduras!’” says Hall of the raucous scene inside the stadium. “It was a good game—too bad we lost.”
Millions of Hispanics living in the United States follow soccer with a passion bordering on madness. To fanáticos across the globe, the sport is far more than a game.
Jorge Ramos, a soccer sportscaster for ESPN Deportes and AARP’s Hispanic Ambassador, says soccer is a way for Latinos to express their national pride. “It’s our way of saying who we are,” says the Uruguayan. “It’s that passion that makes it the ‘beautiful game.’”
And there’s no bigger event for soccer fans than the World Cup, held every four years and set for summer 2010 in South Africa. Right now, national teams around the world are contending for the 32 spots in the tournament.
For many Latin American immigrants and their children, soccer symbolizes a connection to their heritage. They play or coach in community recreation leagues, frequently with teams connected to various nationalities. Hall manages a team called the Honduras Soccer Club, made up mainly of his compatriots. And as fans they follow the fortunes of their national teams on television or, when they can, in person.
More often than not, when the U.S. team plays a home game against a Latin American team, fans of the visitors vastly outnumber the home crowd. When the U.S. faced off against rival Mexico in Chicago in 2007, Soldier Field’s stands were awash in the green uniform jerseys of supporters of El Tri, as the Mexican team is known.
Some reports put the pro-Mexico crowd at 90 percent, and it sounded like at least that many inside the stadium. Mexico fans are known for their spirited support for their teams at games, banging drums, blaring trumpets, whistling and chanting and singing the universal soccer anthem: ¡Olé! ¡Olé-Olé-Olé! ¡Oooooleeee! ¡Oooooleeee!
Arturo Thiele-Sardiña of San Jose, California, considers soccer a way to stay in touch with his roots. Born in Spain but raised in Wisconsin, as a youth he played the sport and used to tune his shortwave radio to follow matches in his homeland. More recently, when the 50-year-old spent over a year in Iraq as a colonel with the U.S. Army Reserves, keeping up with soccer games was a welcome escape and a way to chill out.
“To me, soccer is my connection to the old country,” says Thiele-Sardiña, who also lived in Spain as a teenager. Big games on television are cause for family get-togethers, such as when Spain played a quarterfinal against Italy in the 2008 European Championship. As the Spaniards eked out a victory in an overtime shootout, “we were all standing there, just dying, with our arms around one another,” he recalls. “And when we won, we all ran outside waving the Spanish flag.”
The sport still lags in popularity in the United States, falling behind mainstream sports such as baseball, football, and basketball. But that’s changing—albeit gradually. Hosting the World Cup here in 1994 raised the sport’s visibility and kicked off Major League Soccer, which has grown to 15 professional teams. The recent importation of superstars such as Britain’s David Beckham and Mexico’s Cuauhtémoc Blanco to play in MLS has attracted unprecedented media attention.
The recent success of the U.S. team at the 2009 Confederations Cup—a warm-up for the World Cup in South Africa—put the spotlight on soccer, too. The U.S. team defied all expectations to reach the final of the event, knocking out heavily favored Spain before falling to Brazil.
Yet, among U.S. Hispanics—with the exception of those from Caribbean countries such as Cuba and the Dominican Republic, where baseball is the top sport—soccer has always been number one.
As of this writing, there were 14 national teams from Spanish-speaking countries vying for as many as nine spots in the 2010 World Cup; the final lineup of teams for the tournament will be set by November.