Every superhero has an origin story. For us, that may be the first time we saw Juventus play, watching Pippo Inzaghi celebrate tap-ins like 40 meter scorchers, banter in the streets of Lagos, or maybe it was seeing Valencia own the hell out of their underdog tag for years on end. For TS1 co-founder (and #1 Batman superfan) Juan Duque, it was his special relationship with his father that created his love for the game, and through that, his eternal love for los verdolagas of Atlético Nacional.
Growing up in a large family divided between Medellin’s two rival professional soccer teams (Atlético National vs Independiente Medellin), it took thick skin to stand up to the heckling from uncles, aunts, and cousins from whom I was normally seeking approval. But I was a four-year-old who refused to be intimidated. My mind was made. My heart would forever bleed green. I was old enough to understand that I could choose what I love, and I had chosen Atlético Nacional.
The style in which Colombia played soccer became synonymous with the “toca toca,” aesthetically pleasing and improvised elegance in which so many hoped to play the game, but few could achieve. The core group of players and eventual legends that created this identity for the Colombian nation (e.g., Maturana, Higuita, “Chonto” Herrera, Alexis Garcia, Leonel Álvarez, Andrés Escobar, Asprilla, Tréllez) were men who at one point or another sported the white and green and filled El Atanasio Girardot. These players led Atlético Nacional to a Copa Libertadores trophy; the first ever Colombian team to win the most prestigious South American tournament. The Colombian national team entered the 1994 World Cup as a favorite to crown itself a world champion largely due to “los verdes” on the team. Names the world may be more familiar with, such as Aristizábal, Iván Córdoba, and Juan Pablo Ángel continued to earn Atlético Nacional the nickname “rey de copas” and pave the way for names like James Rodriguez to reach world-wide celebrity status. My affinity for los verdolagas and the vision its legends had on how the beautiful sport should be played ultimately determined how I would play fútbol and the success I was fortunate enough to enjoy as a player.
OK, I’ll admit I left out the important fact that the most influential man in my life is a life-long Atlético Nacional fan: my father. Coming from a town in Connecticut that borders New York meant there was a huge local demand for fútbol Colombiano and Copa Libertadores. But there was a catch. It was the late 80s/early 90s, which meant the international soccer channels could not be added to your cable package. Streaming live games anywhere your cell phone gets service was not an option in those days, either. Fútbol Colombiano and Copa Libertadores could only be watched at bars.
So my father, a man that does not drink, smoke, swear, or do anything that could remotely be considered indecent would take me to Port Chester, NY, bars and place me on his shoulders for 90+ minutes to cheer for our beloved Atlético Nacional. It was here that I learned life lessons I carry with me today, like the art of banter, that I hate losing more than I love winning, that Colombia is a regionally divided country, and that empanadas with gaseosa de manzana are the one thing I’ll never cut out of my diet. These games became the only thing I looked forward to all week (aside from actually playing), and not because drunk men are a fascinating spectacle to a young boy. The games became my escape.
I spent the majority of my childhood being a misfit for a host of reasons: being one of two students of color for the majority of my elementary and middle school years, not speaking English as my first language, bringing lunches to school with food the kids had never seen or heard of, and spending recess juggling a soccer ball when all the other kids were playing tag. I was an anomaly to kids and parents who, for the most part, had the best of intentions and wanted to include me but didn’t know how. When Atlético Nacional was playing, I was in a world where I belonged. It meant a night out with my best friend (my pops). It meant I could dance to cumbia and salsa, sing to Grupo Niche, cry to vallenatos, and give my tactical analysis of a game and actually have ears to listen. When los verdes were playing, I had a safe haven to embrace a rich culture that is a continent away.
I observed my father closely during these games. I remember as a kid thinking to myself he was different to the other men. There was never any chaos around him despite the ingredients for bar-mayhem during some of the heated domestic and international rivalries. Although he was at these games strictly as a spectator, he was never one to judge. He had comedian’s sense of humor, but a demeanor that commanded respect. I realized that if I wanted to emulate the man that I admired, I could only wear the green and white striped jersey if I was prepared to humble myself and be a role model.
Ultimately, growing up an Atlético Nacional fan taught me more than the just the kind of player I wanted to be on the pitch. It inspired me to share a beautiful country and culture with friends and strangers in the county that I truly call home: America.