TAMPA — Hours before Colombia and Venezuela kicked off their friendly soccer match on Tuesday night, Tony Hernandez arrived to set up his pop-up tent in the closest grass parking lot to Raymond James Stadium.
Hernandez, donning a red Colombia T-shirt, was here to support his team, but his favorite part of a match day comes long before fans filter into their seats.
“Tailgating is the best part because you can walk up to any little tent,” he said. “We’re all family. They see your shirt, they see that you’re rooting for their team, and you’re automatically family.”
Hernandez has made a tradition of watching Colombia play in his backyard. When the Colombia national soccer team traveled to Tampa to play a friendly against the United States in 2018, he made the hour-long drive with his family from their Spring Hill home to watch the match live.
“The stadium was electrifying,” Hernandez said of the 2018 match between the USA and Colombia, a contest that drew 38,631 to Raymond James Stadium.
So, when the Colombia national team returned to Tampa Tuesday, so did Hernandez and his family.
“We root for Colombia every time they come here,” Hernandez said.
The thing is, Hernandez hasn’t always identified with Colombia. He wasn’t born into a Colombian family, and he didn’t grow up watching soccer in the Tampa Bay area.
“My wife is Colombian,” Hernandez said. “My kids are half Colombian and half Puerto Rican, so we’re just trying to keep the tradition alive.”
Hernandez, a native of Bayamon, Puerto Rico, said he has always loved baseball, never really paying much attention to soccer. That changed after he married into a Colombian family 15 years ago. Now 40, Hernandez is a Colombian soccer fanatic, supporting the team during World Cups and traveling to watch them play whenever the team comes to Florida.
“I’m now Colombian,” Hernandez said. “It’s very important to me.”
On Tuesday, Hernandez spent the hours before the match with his wife, his four kids and his in-laws. His father in-law, Jorge Astudillo, moved to the United States from Cali, Colombia in 1977. Now 70, Astudillo said it is a joy to watch his home country compete in Tampa.
“I feel very happy,” Astudillo said. “It’s beautiful. I feel proud to have a lot of Colombian people here.”
On the other side of lot 6 at Raymond James Stadium, Scott Crawford dared to wear his navy-blue and red striped United States kit, a jersey that that stood out from a sea of yellow Colombian and Venezuelan shirts. Crawford, a Tampa native, came to the game with a group of Colombia supporters.
Crawford grew up playing soccer in Tampa with Harry Grimaldo, a friend who was born to Colombian parents in the United States. Now, the two continue to play pickup soccer with a group of friends in Tampa on Friday nights. That group bought up over 100 tickets to Tuesday night’s match for friends and relatives.
“I’m going to enjoy the game,” Crawford said at his pregame tailgate. “Being out here is just as fun.”
On the pitch, Colombia and Venezuela drew 0-0. Both sides drew three yellow cards, and Colombia outshot Venezuela, 18-5.
Contact Ryan Kolakowski at email@example.com. Follow @Ryan_Kolakowski