Sports

Las viejitas, Landon Donovan and the joys of the World Cup


From watching highlights of Pele in 1970 on an old projector to staying up late to watch the U.S. qualify in 1990 on a Paul Caliguiri goal, my household has always made a big deal about the World Cup.

My grandfather was my connection to soccer. He was born in the Canary Islands, and at an early age, he boarded a ship bound for Argentina to play balompié, as he would call it. His boat docked in Cuba and he ended up staying on the island and eventually became a referee in the early version of the Cuban professional soccer leagues. His brother stayed in Spain and would later become the first Canario to referee in the Spanish first division.

But during my childhood in the 1980s, soccer hadn’t really taken hold in the U.S. There was the North American Soccer League for a bit and a weekly “Soccer Made in Germany” highlight show, and that was it. But every four years, fútbol would dominate the talk around the dinner table.

My mom and my aunt, who used to sit in the stands watching my grandfather ref games and trying to tune out the insults from the fans, would always root for Spain. They would also pick a Latin American team to cheer on along with the United States, once it started qualifying for the tournament.

One year it was Chile because my mom had a Chilean co-worker, or Mexico another because my cousin had married a Mexican.

Through the years, my mom and my aunt would become the viejita version of Andres Cantor, breaking down match-ups and predicting up knockout round possibilities. No matter how old they became or what health issues presented themselves, once the World Cup rolled around, they were locked in.

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I became that obnoxious American soccer fan that was constantly trying to convince everyone around me that they too needed to pay attention the National Team. I’ve seen every U.S. World Cup and seen some great games in some random places. I watched the Dos a Cero match in 2002 in a small Las Vegas lounge and was hugging strangers after the 2014 World Cup goal by Jermaine Jones vs. Portugal in a dive bar in Brooklyn.

But my most memorable moment came in 2010 when I was visiting my parents in Houston.

My aunt was in the hospital attending to her ailing husband and had no access to a TV during the key game between the U.S. and Algeria. The U.S. needed to win in order to advance, and the game was scoreless for the full 90 minutes and into stoppage time.

I have to pace around during matches so I try to stay out of the way and be on my own. I spent the time watching a small TV alone in the den while my mom was watching in the living room giving updates to my aunt in the hospital. There were a lot of “no, todavía no han anotado.”

Then it happened. Howard’s outlet, Landon’s run, Jozy’s pass, Dempsey’s shot and then Landon’s goal. As I ran around the house celebrating the goal that would get the U.S. to the second round, I heard my mom screaming into the phone “Anotó Donovan! Anotó Donovan!” then laughing and cheering with her sister in the hospital.

I couldn’t help but take a moment between the joy — and, yes, tears — to see these two viejitas cheering and acting like school girls thanks to a goal from Landon Donovan. And to realize that they had been sharing these joys and memories of this amazing event for longer than I have been alive.

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This is the first World Cup my mom won’t have her sister with her to talk about the World Cup, My aunt died in 2021. I’ve been trying to fill that void as best as I can. She’s excited that the U.S. is back, she is ready to root for Argentina again (loves Messi, hated Maradona) and doesn’t understand why Chicharito isn’t on the El Tri roster.

I’m glad the U.S. is back in the World Cup, too, but I’m most thankful I’ll have another tournament to share with my mom.

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