Beautiful game calling

BERNICE PONTANILLA, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:36 AM ET

Winnipeg Sun copy editor Bernice Pontanilla is today embarking on a pilgrimage to South Africa to watch her beloved Chilean team play against Spain (and hopefully a few more countries) at the World Cup. Starting Wednesday, she will be reporting back to the Sun on her adventures and today she leaves us with her thoughts on starting this once-in-a-lifetime soccer journey.

I've tried to picture it a hundred times.

What it'll be like when my team takes to the field, to hear the national anthem, and to see the thousands of fellow fans clad in red.

What it'll be like to sing with all of those people, join in the soccer chants and be overwhelmed with the drone of the vuvuzelas, which, happily, I don't mind very much.

To have travelled over the course of 36 hours to get to the FIFA 2010 World Cup, from Winnipeg to Johannesburg to Pretoria for the Group H match between Chile and Spain then back to Joburg for two round of 16 games is a dream come true for me, the No. 1 item on my proverbial bucket list.

That's why every time I try to picture what it'll be like, I get lump in my throat and tears of joy in my eyes. It's an overwhelming feeling -- and I have yet to feel it for real.

How is it that a simple soccer game can bring forth so much emotion?

It's quite easy to understand, actually. For those of us who have grown up with the sport, it's tied to events in our lives, such as games with the neighbourhood kids, learning the songs sung by the fans in the stands, watching matches as a family around the television set and hearing the stories of great World Cup moments gone by from your dad.

It's weaved into your life, from the time of your childhood, through teenage years, and into adult life.

My team is Chile, the country of my parents' birth, where I still have many family members, and visit often. I'm very proud of my roots and love La Roja, as the team is known.

Soccer is also the tie that binds me to the memories I have of my late grandfather Carlos, of going to games with him, asking him questions about tactics and players, and watching a qualifier between Chile and Venezuela with him on television in the lead-up to the 1998 World Cup, the last time Chile qualified.

My grandmother says that of all of the grandkids, I inherited his passion for futbol, as we call it in Chile. Words cannot express how proud I feel hearing that. I know that if he were alive, he'd have gone with me. Soccer keeps his memory alive; every time I watch a match, I think of him.

The World Cup was held in Santiago, Chile's capital, back in 1962, a tournament in which Chile finished third, its best-ever showing.

The homes of both my maternal and paternal grandparents are in Santiago's Villa Olimpica, which is beside the National Stadium. They were in the midst of all of the excitement surrounding that World Cup, which happened two years after the most powerful earthquake ever measured hit a region south of Santiago in 1960.

My dad fondly remembers that tournament. He was, in his own words, a bare-footed kid who loved playing on the pitches (clay, not grass) on the grounds of the National Stadium. During the tourney, he and a group of boys were playing when they were invited to a game with a group of young men.

Turns out those adults were members of the Brazilian national soccer team, who later won it all.

"Dad, was Pele there?" I asked him in awe when he told me that story as a kid. Even at that young age, I understood the significance.

"Probably," my dad said, "they were all there practising, so he must have been!"

For Chileans all over the globe, there is an added sense of importance to this year's tournament. It's merely months after the February earthquake and tsunami that devastated the nation. There are towns that haven't been rebuilt yet, thousands of people still homeless.

But for a few short weeks, every Chilean in the country and abroad will stand a tad taller, see the future a bit brighter. They'll follow their stars in Alexis Sanchez, Matias Fernandez, Humberto Suazo and every other player on the team.

There's a magic to this tournament, an allure, a shine that cannot be dulled no matter how many times I hear the criticisms that the pace is too slow, not enough goals are scored, and players supposedly spend all their time diving.

Each World Cup is remembered for the drama of the matches, athleticism of the players and the exuberance of the fans.

More importantly, it brings billions of people together in their love for a simple game that simply has no equal.


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