A Tuesday morning in downtown Washington in June is a disgusting scene. The nation’s capital is hot as an armpit, and every Capitol Hill staffer, reporter, and mid-level Treasury Department employee is pissed off that they had to either ride a cramped bus or train to work or sweat half their body weight by daring to walk there in 90-degree heat.
But inside a little bar near DuPont Circle, this city is the happiest place on Earth.
“This is my first time, but I’ve been told this is where you need to go for a Colombian hinchada,” a 24-year old from Bogotá named Luis tells me between shots of aguardiente, the anise-flavored liqueur that serves as the drink of choice for most of the people here.
By shortly after Colombia’s 8 a.m. local kickoff against Japan, Lucky Bar (a favorite SB Nation watering hole that doubles as a huge Colombia bar) is at its 180-person capacity, almost all of them in yellow shirts. I’ve shown up to write a story about the bar scene around the World Cup in a city that has fans from every country, and how it might let people enjoy the tournament more in a year when the United States missed out. I will leave this bar caring more about the Colombian team than I’ve ever cared about the USMNT.
I have never had more fun watching a soccer game than while watching Colombia lose to Japan while playing with 10 men.
You can’t beat the atmosphere. Most of the back room of the bar does a shot at 7:54 in the morning on a Tuesday, then launches into the national anthem at 7:55.
The place goes wild at kickoff of this match against Japan, and it goes even wilder 15 seconds later, when the sound comes on and everyone can hear FOX’s broadcasters calling the game. The only interruption is when the owner of the bar gives a little speech predicting that the “sheer emotion of the Colombia fans coming in” will push Los Cafeteros to victory. “I’m gonna get back behind the bar,” he then says, “and serve you drinks.” Then the noise reaches a crescendo that’ll only be topped when Colombia scores a bit later.
The game does not go well early. Colombia has to play a man down for the last 87-plus minutes after Carlos Sanchez takes a brutal red card that sets up a Japanese penalty-kick goal. Colombia’s tying goals in the 39th minute turns out to be for naught, because Japan’s Yuya Osako heads a ball past David Ospina and inside the right post in the 73rd.
The Colombians in this bar keep the faith pretty well. The place erupts when an injured James comes off the bench in the 59th minute. Japan spends most of the game controlling the ball, because Colombia’s playing with 10 guys, so the fans here get really amped whenever their team even gets possession. The chant is a three-syllable CO-LOM-BIA, which sounds way better than what it’d be if this were a New York team. Then it would be one of those those drawn out, four-syllable CO-LOM-BI-A sounds.
No one freaks out when Los Cafeteros lose. A few people even offer congratulatory handshakes to one of the two Japanese fans in sight.
Where Colombia fans gather, their pride in their country oozes out. It’s the right kind of national pride, not the toxic kind.
Colombia is one of the world’s most caricatured countries, at least to people in the United States, whose knowledge of the country doesn’t extend much beyond Narcos. When Los Cafeteros take the field, an entire country gets to tell its own story in a way it usually doesn’t.
“People talk about what they know. And unless you’ve been to Colombia, you can’t really talk and experience. They just talk about what they see on Netflix, Narcos or on shows or movies,” says Jordan Agudelo, a 29-year-old who was born in Medellin and now has a Colombian flag draped over his back. “But it’s not like that. It’s like if someone was to see the movie Scarface. You’re like, ‘Ohh, is that how?’ No, it’s not like that. It’s just a play.”
When the national team plays, the world’s focus is on Falcao, James, and the legions of people chanting Co-lom-bia as they watch them. It’s not on Pablo Escobar, because a TV broadcast of a soccer game can’t take the dramatic license a TV show can.
“We shouldn’t be known for that,” Agudelo says. “We should be known maybe for our soccer or our beautiful beaches or our roses or coffee. People should see us for our good things, not for our bad things that we did years ago.”
Colombia still has difficulties. Some soccer fans in a bar in D.C. won’t solve them all. But the team brings people together over good drinks and breakfast burritos.
“For one, we love the sports. For two, it’s been something historically that has united the whole country,” Luis says. “When we go to the World Cup, we are all Colombian. We don’t have our factions like we have in our home country, and we just enjoy to be together and enjoy the one true passion, which is to win the World Cup, hopefully.”
It’s refreshing to see a form of nationalism that isn’t built on tearing down others.
“Just to see the amount of Colombians and, like, they’re here,” Agudelo says. “I never knew there were so many. I knew there was a lot, I mean, in the nation’s capital. But just to see all of us united again, it’s amazing to see it.”
Colombia’s fans have a relentless optimism that pairs well with a bar scene.
On this morning, an exodus began quickly after the referee called the game at the 95-minute mark, where moments earlier the Colombians were left hoping for a final throw-in opportunity that didn’t come. Yellow shirts scattered in each of the five possible directions at the intersection of Connecticut Ave. and 18th Street, joining all the regular D.C. people and disappearing from view.
They’ll pack this bar again on Sunday afternoon, when Los Cafeteros try again for their first points of the World Cup in a game against Poland.
On her way out of the bar at 9:50 a.m. Tuesday, a woman in a Colombia shirt yells out to a friend (or maybe just a countryman) already 50 yards across the street.