Soccer fans from SF and the Bay Area are set to fill the Levi’s Stadium Tuesday night in a friendly game that means more than just bragging rights to Colombian and Mexican fans.
“These international games are the only chance we get to see our heroes together,” said Janeth Gabriel who immigrated from Colombia 20 years ago. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a friendly, it is still very emotional for us.”
Gabriel beams when she reminisces about Colombia’s last sold out visit to the Bay Area in 2016. She and her daughter got to see their favorite players James Rodríguez and Juan Cuadrado play in real life. It was also the most Colombians she had ever seen since leaving her home country.
“It’s very hard to meet other Colombian people here,” she said. According to the latest census, the vast majority of Colombian-Americans live in areas such as New York and Florida. “The crowd [at Levi’s] showed me that our people will travel to see the team.”
But as far as Rene Lopez is concerned, San Francisco is undoubtedly an “El Tri” town. El Tri is the popular nickname for the Mexican National Team. The name stems from the country’s flag, which has three colors: red, green and white.
“For every one Colombian jersey we’ve sold today, we’ve sold 10 Mexican ones,” Lopez said as he was setting up a new storefront display showcasing both country’s shirts at Elite Sports. He and his family have independently owned and operated the soccer shop in the Mission District since 1994.
Their shop is a staple in the community, having won over soccer aficionados with their rare international soccer jerseys long before the big companies got in the game. Their top selling jerseys have been the usual suspects: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Arsenal and PSG.
But topping all of those in sales is El Tri, and right behind them is Mexico City’s Club America.
“There’s nothing quite like the Mexican team here,” Lopez said. “Win, lose or draw, their fanbase is united and supports them no matter what.”
Business is good for the Lopez family whenever international teams come to town. “We’re not rooting for either side though,” he said. “We’re from El Salvador.”
Before she settled in San Francisco, one of Gabriel’s first loves in life was attending soccer matches with her family at the historic Estadio El Campín, opened in 1938. There, she insists that instead of falling for it, her beloved soccer team, Club Independiente Santa Fe, known simply as “Santa Fe,” chose her.
Nicknamed “Los Cardenales” for their signature red and white jerseys, the team is one of the most successful soccer clubs in the capital city of Bogotá where she was born and raised. But since much of that history came before she was even born, her fandom was mostly one of tortured love before it was reduced to a long-distance relationship.
A small price to pay for her journey to the States has been the ability to watch Santa Fe or any Colombian soccer at all. Unlike say American, European or Mexican soccer which are readily available in the U.S. market, it is difficult to watch the Colombian league.
“My family likes to tease me that Santa Fe only won once I left [Colombia],” Gabriel said with a laugh. On this particular night, she was at the Franklin Square soccer fields watching her 13 year old daughter play in a mixed-age, co-ed league.
But for every fan like Gabriel who is grateful for any bit of Colombian soccer she can get, there are those like Jose Patino, who operates and coaches in a free youth soccer program in the Mission known as Tarimoro Soccer. Although he also immigrated from his home country, here, he is inundated with non-stop coverage of the game in his native Mexico.
Contrary to popular belief, the Mexican top-flight is actually the most watched soccer league in North America. Having seen every detail about his team, Patino struck a more cynical tone than that of Gabriel.
“The Mexican federation rotates its players too much,” Patino said. He is worried about his team’s form heading into this year’s World Cup. “They create more problems for themselves instead of rewarding the best. It doesn’t matter who is the coach.”
He will be watching Tuesday wondering how the current coach, Tata Martino, will fill in key holes in the Mexican defense and attack.
Gabriel and her family, on the other hand, will be savoring every kick.
Tickets are still available for Tuesday’s game here.