It was standing room only at CitiField earlier this week, as passionate, enthusiastic fans filled the stadium to root for their two beloved squads. Wearing team colors, waving flags and sporting painted faces, they cheered on the groups of high-paid, well-trained professionals who battled to a 1-1 tie in a game marked by tough defense.
There were no Mets to be found, of course, except for in posters around the arena. This was an exhibition soccer match between the Greek national team and its counterpart from Ecuador.
No trophies, no overtimes to decide a victor, no MVP award. This was a chance for the best players from each country to tune up their skills in light of upcoming European and South American championships.
But more importantly, it was an opportunity for immigrants from two soccer-crazy nations to forget their homesickness, their difficult jobs and any other stateside problems and enjoy a night of pride, patriotism and partying.
“Nothing unites us like the national team,” Rafael Marcelo Jara Calle, a dentist from Azogues, said in Spanish as he waited on a long and boisterous line to enter CitiField before kick-off. “Look at all these people. What else would bring so many of us together?”
Jara Calle, who lives in Elmhurst, described feeling “fulfilled” by the fact that Ecuador’s national team had travelled to his adoptive borough.
“We should have more games here,” he said, noting that this is the first ever soccer match in CitiField. “Look at all these people. They [the owners of the Mets] would make a lot of money. “
It appears that the MTA would benefit, too.
The 7 train was packed with passengers in yellow (Ecuador) and blue (Greece) jerseys for about two hours before the game. Some people wanted to get to CitiField early to watch pre-game warm-ups, but others had no intention to spectate. They wanted to attend pre-game barbecues, eat familiar food, see friends and enjoy the festive, at times giddy, atmosphere.
According to the studies, roughly 100,000 Ecuadorian natives live in Queens, mostly in Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Corona. About 20,000 Greeks reside in the borough with the majority in Astoria and Whitestone.
Once the ball started rolling, all eyes were on the field. Some aficionados sporadically chanted “Hellas, Hellas [Greece, Greece],” while the opposition responded with “E-cua-dor, E-cua-dor” and “Si se puede. Si se puede [Yes, we can].” Whenever a footballer got close to the opposition goal, everybody stood up in anticipation and then let out screams of joy or disappointment when the sequence ended.
And as to be expected, there was blue pandemonium after Greece scored in the first half, and yellow pandemonium when Ecuador put the ball in the back of the net in the second half.
The teams had different styles. The Greeks were taller, but slower. They relied on long passes, headers and a tight defense. The Ecuadorians were shorter, but faster. They made quick little passes around their opponents. Both sides demonstrated flashes of brilliance, but they also made errant passes displayed momentary miscommunications, proving that a friendly tune-up was in order.
When the final whistle sounded, the players on the pitch formed a line to congratulate each other and exchange jerseys. Meanwhile, the spectators in the stands made their final chants and waved their flags for the last time.
Then it was off to the 7 train to head home. But the chants continued on the platform.