Westerville News & Public Opinion

Cup-crazy family displays passion

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Jacqueline Villarroel and her family have the flags representing the 32 teams in the World Cup planted in the front yard of their East Walnut Street home in Westerville. As teams are eliminated, their flags will be moved from the group to an area behind the others.

In 1994, 19-year-old Jacqueline Villarroel watched her beloved Bolivian national team compete in the World Cup -- for its first and only time -- in the first Cup tournament hosted in the United States.

"Watching the TV, I just cried. We all did," Villarroel said. "It was a ghost town in Bolivia. All of the stores were closed and everything."

Two years later, Villarroel left Bolivia to come to America, where her nation got its only taste of the world's biggest soccer tournament, and she brought her love of the sport (football, to much of the world) to the States.

Now, when the FIFA World Cup comes around each four years, Villarroel, 39, has found a way to express her love of the game from her home in Westerville -- even though this year Bolivia is not competing.

For the third Cup in a row (and the last women's World Cup) Villarroel has assembled an arrangement of each of the 32 participating nations' flags. The flags are organized by World Cup group, and after each team is eliminated, so are their flags, until only one nation remains.

By the end of the tournament, which began June 12 and ends July 13 in Brazil, only one flag will stand, and Villarroel will arrange the vanquished nations into a semicircle around the eventual champion.

The front yard of the Villarroel family's house at 686 E. Walnut St. faces the well-traveled street in Westerville, giving her the perfect audience for the array of flying colors. The flags get plenty of reaction both from those who know the World Cup is happening and those who don't.

"Some people don't know what they're for," Villarroel said. "One person came up and said, 'Why all the flags?' "

Others don't know how the groups work, and wonder why the USA's Stars and Stripes aren't in the very front.

"People get mad and say, 'Why is America in the back?' " Villarroel said with a laugh.

She doesn't mind explaining, and invites people to take a look at her flags, "as long as they don't take any with them." She said people often stop or slow down as they drive by to take photos, and she's even had people bring their children to look at the 32 banners.

As soccer has grown in America, Villarroel said she thinks she's seen more people acknowledge the flags, and that more people know about the World Cup this year than in the past.

But despite the public nature of the display, Villarroel, who coaches gymnastics and volunteers with the Westerville Sunrise Rotary Club, said it's not about the public involvement.

"I just felt like I wanted to do something for me," she said.

Villarroel's love of soccer began at a young age. As a girl in Bolivia, she wasn't allowed to play soccer, but her father taught her anyway -- to the chagrin of her mother.

"He would say, 'You're going to be the goalie, but you can't cry if I hit you in the face,' " she laughed. "I stopped it, and pretended like it didn't hurt."

Now, Villarroel plays in adult leagues with her uncle Orlando Castro's Global Soccer Club in Westerville, where she said the games can sometimes be more about beer than competition. But the team still finds most of the other adult teams "easy," especially now that they compete in the over-40 leagues.

In direct contrast to the disdain between European teams or the bitter United States rivalry with Mexico, Villarroel said the South American teams are more unified, and pull for each other when their team isn't involved.

So this year, she'll be rooting for Brazil and the other South American countries, but still wants the United States to do well.

"I hope the USA can go deeper than they have," she said. "I have a lot of friends who will be disappointed if they don't."

But even among USA fans, her flags' popularity has created more demand, and Villarroel said she's had people suggest an expanded operation.

"People have said, 'You're not going to do it for the Olympics?' " she said. "Do you know how many flags I would have to get?"