We all had our own ideas about just how intense the craze over soccer is in South America, and being a little bit of a world soccer fan myself, I was very excited to see it in person. The day after I arrived and met my host family, the entire family promptly began showering me with questions about soccer (all in Spanish, of course), culminating with the question of whether or not I would be interested in joining them every Monday night to actually go and play with them. Of course, regardless of my skill level and lack of adaptation to the altitude, my answer was a resounding yes. As the first Monday rolled around and I was scrambling to get from Sopocachi all the way to CotaCota (on the other side of La Paz) to be on time to head to the field, I started getting quite nervous. Would the people who were playing with us take kindly to a white kid with iffy soccer skills joining in? And just how good would these guys be at soccer? I was expecting seamless rainbows and perfect shots on goal. When we arrived to the cold, dark field though, and as the game commenced, I found that nearly all of my preconceptions were incorrect.
I walked up to the guys who would be playing with us, and introduced myself to Oscar, Cesar, Max, and the others, and for whatever reason I was so surprised with how relaxed and welcoming they were toward me. After everyone got stretched out and warmed up a bit, we began our first game. As soon as the first few minutes had passed I was able to see how the rest of the night would go: with me out of breath the entire time of course, but more importantly what playing with these young men would show me about their culture and about soccer as a whole. Don’t get me wrong, these guys knew exactly what they were doing on that field. But it was not like they had taken a break from La Liga to come play on a Monday night in La Paz. Their level of skill and style of play was not different at all from how it is back home. These men were not out there to make perfect shots or even necessarily to win at all costs. They were there to share in the love of the beautiful game, simply to come together as brothers, leaving behind whatever happens in their daily lives. And what took me by surprise the most was how they acted toward me. My skill level and skin color did not matter at all to them, they joked with me and treated me just as though I had grown up alongside all of them, as they had with one another. When I slowed down to reflect on my experience with them it made me realize that the way these men understand the sport of soccer versus how we view it in the United States can actually serve as a parallel to compare the entire world views of people in the US with those of people in Bolivia (from what I have observed here so far). Just as it is with soccer in the US, in life back home people are often focused on winning at all costs; always scraping up that next dollar and sometimes setting aside friends and family in favor of personal gain, be it in the workplace, on the sports field, or even on social media. But here in La Paz it seems to me that people care more for the smaller things, things that we Americans often take for granted. On the soccer field with my friends and brothers from La Paz, I see that to them it is not all about winning. It is about loving and caring for one another, regardless of what team you are on, where you come from, how much money you have, or what you look like. That being said, I am counting the seconds until I get to play with them again.