I have a small confession to make.
My family had a little black box. If you’re an ’80s baby, you know what I’m talking about. The box that went on top of your TV that the cable company didn’t know about. The box that would transport you to the soccer cathedrals of Rome, or Buenos Aires, or Manchester.
For my family, soccer’s just in our blood. We’re Colombian and both my father and grandfather played soccer professionally. Growing up in the States — first in New Jersey, then in South Florida — we’d crowd around our TV on weekends to watch whatever match we could, such as Serie A and clubs like Parma or Argentinian teams like Huracán and Boca Juniors.
At that time to really follow soccer in America you had to be creative. So we’d sometimes use the black box to pick up games from abroad. My grandfather, who was a little more old school, would sometimes listen to the games on the radio.
Because soccer was hard to find on TV, it was only the top teams that got air time. So being a young kid in the early 2000s, I naturally became an Arsenal fan. I mean, I loved Arsenal. Thierry Henry, Robert Pirès, the Invincibles, everything.
They had a cool emblem — the cannon. A cool nickname — the Gunners. Cool colors. I had all their jerseys — the red, the white, even the yellow-and-blue kit.
I was obsessed, but dial-up Internet meant it took forever to get online and read an article about the team and how they played.
Unfortunately, there weren’t too many kids at school who shared my love for soccer. Hip-hop influenced the trends at my high school, so a lot of my friends would show up wearing some NFL or NBA throwback, and I’d stroll into school wearing my Henry or Zidane jersey.
But it wasn’t just a love of soccer my parents gave me and my siblings. More importantly, my family instilled love and curiosity for traveling. My parents always told us that they’d work hard so they could take us on two vacations a year — one to a place in the States that we’d never been, and another to somewhere in South America or Europe.
And like I said, we’re Colombians. So wherever we went, not only would we of course check out the tourist attractions, but we also made sure to find the best local coffee spots. My parents showed us early on how much traveling could enrich our lives, and we got to drink some great espresso along the way.
As youth soccer got more competitive, it gave me even more opportunities to travel. When I was about 14 or 15, I was invited to be a part of an all-star team of American kids who went to England to play the youth teams of Tottenham Hotspur, Sheffield United, Burnley F.C. and Manchester United.
Of course, it’s one thing to see the games and the fans on TV. We knew the sport was huge in the U.K., but it was only when we went to Tottenham and took a tour of White Hart Lane and then a Premier League match that I saw just how deep it ran. I was so used to how sports in America are — basically, just an entertainment business. For an NFL game, you tailgate — at best. For an NBA game, you just show up. Then you get in your seats, you have your coke, your popcorn, your nachos and just sit in your chair pretty much for the rest of the game.
But in England, people were singing, they were chanting, they were shouting and there was no pop music playing on loudspeakers during commercial timeouts. The passion they’d show when someone scored a goal gave me goosebumps.
Glory, Glory, Tottenham Hotspur!
Glory, Glory, Tottenham Hotspur!
Glory, Glory, Tottenham Hotspur!
And the Spurs go marching on!
I stood there in the stands realizing, Wow, soccer is everything here. It opened my eyes to the fact that playing in Europe was something that I really wanted to do. I still have the ticket stubs from that trip at home.
But back then, an international soccer career didn’t really seem to be in the cards for me. Before I even got to college, plenty of coaches had already written me off because of my size — I was too short, not physical enough, not fast enough.
But things started to click by my junior year at Boston College. We played in the ACC tournament that season, and there happened to be some scouts there from the Swedish club, Örebro SK.
No, they weren’t there for me.
But I happened to catch their eye and they wanted to stay in touch with me.
My good friend and former BC teammate Charlie Davies had been playing in Sweden, so that summer I went to visit him and see if this would be a good fit. I trained with the team a couple of times and toured the facilities, but most of all, I got to spend time with the Swedish people. I didn’t know it then, but everyone in Sweden pretty much speaks perfect English, which, once I figured it out, made the idea of transitioning to life over there seem more realistic.
Coming back on the flight, I just knew: I was going to play in Europe.
I’ll never forget the moment my contract from Örebro SK came through my e-mail. I was sitting in my dorm room. It was one of my final weeks as a college student. I went home for the holidays, printed out my offer, signed it and faxed it back to the club.
Faxed it. That’s right.
It was official. I was going to be a professional soccer player — in Europe.
For many Americans, the European leagues are like a dream. But for me, Europe wasn’t just about soccer or money. Truth be told, I probably would have made more playing in MLS. I came to Europe in the hopes of learning new languages, meeting new people, seeing new sites and expanding my horizons.
There is more to the world than just playing the sport you love or going to work every day. There is the air you breathe and the sky you see when you look up. If everyone could just take deeper breaths and appreciate all that the world has to offer, it would be a beautiful thing.
I don’t want to sugarcoat it. Those first few weeks were challenging.
I arrived in Sweden in January. Granted, I had been playing in Boston, but Sweden in January puts Boston cold to shame. It’s freezing and there are only three hours of sunlight.
No friends, no family, nothing. Skype was my best friend in the first month. I would just come home from training and Skype my friends right away. And that was that. But after I started playing, things got easier. My teammates, along with basically everyone in Sweden, loved American television and movies. I became the resident expert on all things USA.
“Is it really like Entourage in the States?”
“Can you throw all these awesome house parties?”
“Are there mansions all over the place?”
“Is high school really like it is in American Pie?”
Whenever we had a night out, I’d always make sure we played beer pong. Another thing I learned, Swedes are not terrible at pong.
With each passing week, both my knowledge of the game and immersion of another culture grew. I learned how to play tactically, how to see the game in a whole new way. I stopped getting dragged out of position trying to chase balls, as I had tended to do in college. Off the field, I explored new restaurants and built relationships with their owners — and eventually had my own little haunts.
The feeling of meeting random people and learning new things is rather addictive, and after a while you become fearless and find that eventually you have friends all over the world.
In a lot of ways, my life was just like that of any other recent college grad who was figuring out life, a new job and a new city — even down to the Ikea furniture. Which I also bought. While living in Sweden.
Leaving my family behind has been the most difficult part to life abroad, but it’s a life I’m so thankful my parents raised me to be ready for. I’ve seen a lot of other guys gets homesick and return to the States after a season or two. I think for success over here — and there’s already plenty of doubt about American players, which puts pressure on them to be successful on the pitch — you need to want a life over here too. Everything can’t just revolve around soccer.
Playing in Europe helped me to get out of my comfort zone, take a step back and think about who I am. It’s increased my tolerance and empathy and I am much more open to the world. From seeing ancient castles and churches to driving smaller cars mostly with manual transmissions, to having to learn the metric system for everyday life, to getting used to writing the date and time in different formats, to learning different cultural etiquettes, Europe has been nothing but a great learning process.
The best insight for me into each country was the clubs I played for. In Sweden, both Örebro SK and Helsingborgs IF were the most open, friendliest and easygoing locker rooms to be in. The cities were quiet and very friendly.
Then in 2011 I moved to Glasgow, Scotland, to play for Rangers, and it was almost like the other extreme. Glasgow is a blue-collar, industrial city of hard-working people with a crazy passion for soccer. I saw a whole other side of soccer and politics — Protestant versus Catholic. The city really feels divided into sides: That’s a Rangers side; that’s a Celtic side. And I became all too aware of it.
One day my neighbor came over to my place and said, “Your car’s messed up.”
I walked outside and got my own tiny sense of the Old Firm rivalry. My car had been egged and toilet-papered by Celtic fans. Apparently, that happens a lot. Luckily, the locker room at Ibrox is all about the banter, so you learn not to take things too seriously.
The toughest country of all to adjust to has been France, where I play now for FC Nantes. It’s also been the biggest jump athletically.
The reason I came to France was because I saw Ligue 1 was expanding and getting all these players like Falcao and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is a legend in Sweden. So sometimes, yeah, I do pinch myself when I think about the players I’ve gone up against. I never dared to dream of this. I watched all these big-name players growing up, and now I’m playing against the best in the world. I even scored against Paris Saint-Germain. In Paris. Against Zlatan. Of course, Zlatan answered with two of his own.
But French people are very introverted, so it took me a little longer to get into the group. I had to earn respect and it took almost four months — until I scored my first goal — for my teammates to start opening up. All of a sudden, guys who I didn’t think spoke any English started speaking a little bit of English to me.
France is also where I’ve started a family of my own, which comes with totally different perspectives and experiences. I met my girlfriend, Beatrice, while playing in Sweden. Last spring, our son was born, and our lives quieted down considerably. He’s only starting to come to some of my matches. The eight o’clock start time is usually past his bedtime.
It’s crazy to think that I’ve been playing in Europe for seven years now. Growing up, my parents would talk to me about expanding my horizons and seeing the world from different perspectives, and I think it’ll be cool for my son to grow up and tell his friends about his time in France.
I still have ambitions of playing at even higher levels — whether in England or Germany, but with a son, you start to think how it would be nice to play in front of family and friends, and be closer to home, so MLS is still in the back of my head.
When we do decide to move back to the States permanently, it will be bittersweet. I hope my son will have my curiosity for experiencing the world. Because for him Arsenal and Boca Juniors will be right at his fingertips, on his phone any time he wants. He won’t need to to find more “creative” ways to watch soccer — like his dad.