YEKATERINBURG, Russia — A sombrero, out here, has special powers.
It provides 360-degree cover from the summer sun, obviously. But it can also disarm a stranger, start a conversation between people who speak different languages, get its owner onto an international television broadcast, or even slip open a door to romance.
“Ladies love the sombrero,” said Jose Ramon Diaz, who bought his sombrero two years ago in Tehuacán, Mexico, his hometown, for 47 pesos, or about $2.50. “It’s a key that opens a lot of doors.”
Diaz has learned these lessons, and more, during his time alone in Russia this month, rooting for Mexico at the World Cup.
A college student, he made some sacrifices to finance his first trip outside North America, starting with leaving Tehuacán, where he lives with his father, to go to Los Angeles (Diaz was born in the United States) and sleep in a homeless shelter for a month while working two jobs to stockpile cash.
In Russia, Diaz has been eating as infrequently as possible. When he does, he aims to spend no more than 300 rubles, or about $4.75, per meal. This has left him subsisting mostly on Subway sandwiches (“Give me the cheapest,” was the first Russian phrase he learned) and baby food (“It’s cheap and nutritious,” said Diaz, a 23-year-old man).
Outlandish as his World Cup plan sounds, fans just like Diaz repopulate the tournament every four years, enduring periods of self-imposed hardship to nurture their passion and making life decisions nonfanatics would consider ludicrous. One Peruvian was said to have gained more than 50 pounds before his trip because the only tickets he could find were for obese fans.
The Mexican national team, as it happens, has a lot of these fanatics.
Oscar Martinez, 26, for example, had a job at a San Diego shipping warehouse, until he asked his boss for time off to go to Russia. “They said if I go I won’t have a job anymore,” he said. “I was like, ‘OK, bye!'”
The prelude to Diaz’s trip here was its own mini-adventure.
Taking a break from school, he went to Los Angeles at the start of May with his brother (who wanted to make money for more practical purposes than the World Cup.) They procured beds at a homeless shelter downtown. Diaz found two jobs, unloading boxes of seafood at a warehouse from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. and then washing dishes at a Japanese restaurant from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. He did this every day, eating meals at the shelter, and by the end of the month he had saved just over $2,000.
Diaz seemed momentarily taken aback when asked why he had subjected himself to all this. He loves soccer, he said, and he thinks Mexico is going to win the World Cup.
Many others seemed to have subscribed to this same soccer calculus. Mexico had the sixth-highest number of ticket buyers for this tournament, 60,302, and it is reasonable to assume that a big chunk of the 88,825 sold to the United States were scooped up by fans of El Tri, as well.
“Half the people really love soccer and half want to be around the party,” said Pablo Calderon, 31, a lawyer from Mexico City who had tickets to all of Mexico’s games.
Diaz, who did not have tickets to any of the team’s games, got to Moscow several days before the tournament because the airfare was cheaper to travel then. He spent a couple of days in a $10-a-night hostel before connecting with a Russian man on the outskirts of the city with a spare couch who wanted to practice his Spanish.
“I’m so blessed,” Diaz said.
Early this month, before the international hordes arrived, Diaz caused a stir wherever he went with his sombrero. Eight times he was happily plucked off the street for television interviews. Locals formed lines to take pictures with him. Multiple women gave him their phone numbers. (“A recommendation for everyone who hasn’t arrived: bring a sombrero,” Diaz said on one Mexican television broadcast.)
By the day of Mexico’s first game, Moscow was brimming with visitors. People stopped to make small talk.
“Sombrero!” said a man wearing a German flag over his shoulders.
“Sombrero,” Diaz said back.
Later, a woman from Kyrgyzstan asked if she could borrow his sombrero, and he sat silently for several minutes as each person in her group of six took turns taking selfies with it. (A sombrero, it turns out, can be a burden, too.)
For the most part, though, Diaz and his sombrero were drawing far less attention than before. Others, like a group of tipsy Swedes wearing horned helmets, were stealing away some of the demand for pictures. Anyway, he was more focused on finding a way inside the stadium.
Diaz’s plan had been to juggle a soccer ball outside major Moscow landmarks, drawing enough attention to then beg for a ticket. The plan failed; no one offered him one at a price he considered remotely acceptable. But a juggling session outside the Bolshoi Theater did lead to one interesting encounter with Colombian singer Maluma, who was walking by with his substantial security detail and stopped for several minutes to kick around with Diaz.
“Do you know how many girls want to talk to Maluma?” Diaz said, sounding amazed.
Shut out of the game, Diaz had to watch Mexico’s stunning upset of Germany at an outdoor fan festival. It was less than ideal, but a couple of days later, it felt like his luck might turn. His father’s cousin’s husband sent him a text asking if he was in Russia. He and his three adult children were driving to Rostov-on-Don for Mexico’s second game and he invited Diaz to join them. The five piled into a rental car and headed south.
On Saturday, a couple of hours before Mexico would face South Korea, Diaz rambled around looking for a ticket outside Rostov Arena. He had little luck until he ran into an older man wearing a white jersey. When the man took off his baseball cap and sunglasses, Diaz realized he was Enrique Meza, a former Mexico national team coach known as “Ojitos” for his sharp eyes and the current manager of Puebla in the Mexican league. Meza sold him a spare ticket, a field level seat behind the goal, for $100.
Inside, Diaz put on his sombrero and bounced along with the other 43,472 people at the game, all of whom had undertaken mini-odysseys of their own to get there.
“I don’t know how, but I completed a dream,” Diaz said. “I told you, I’m blessed.”
On Monday afternoon, he was back in the back seat of a car on a 1,000-mile, multiday drive from Rostov to Yekaterinburg, where Mexico will play its final game in the group stage Wednesday. He has no plans beyond that. He does not even have a return ticket home.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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