Miami-Dade County

Who to root for: South Florida’s ex-pat fans must decide

With gazes fixed on the TVs, about 200 faces lit up as the soccer ball floated to James Rodriguez.

Colombian fans watching last Saturday’s game at El Corral in Doral gripped their flags, drinks or each others’ hands as the 22-year-old Colombian midfielder bounced the ball off his chest before rocketing it into the back of the net.

The screams rocked the Colombian eatery: “GOOAL! COL-OM-BIA! COL-OM-BIA!”

With four Latin American teams advancing to the Round of Eight in the World Cup, the dilemma is who to root for: Argentina, Brazil, Colombia or Costa Rica. All four have a significant presence in South Florida.

The Brazilian Consulate in Miami estimates 250,000 Brazilians live in Florida. The consulate issues more documents — passports, marriage and birth certificates — than any other Brazilian consulate in the U.S.

And the 250,000 doesn’t count the growing number of Brazilians who have purchased luxury condos and visit for a week or even a few months at a time. Most of the Brazilians in Florida are concentrated in Miami-Dade, Broward — especially in the Lighthouse Point/Pompano area — and Palm Beach and Orlando, said Deputy Counsul Fernando Arruda.

Brazil has been touted as a World Cup favorite, but it's also a big foot when it comes to the local statistics game.

Brazilians visit Miami-Dade County more than any other international tourists. Last year 755,550 Brazilians spent at least one night here. They're also big spenders, dropping $1.7 billion during their trips to Miami-Dade. During the summer months — when Brazilians have their winter holidays and the kids are off from school — you can scarcely visit an Apple Store or Sawgrass Mills without hearing the lilt of Brazilian Portuguese.

But the shopping figure pales compared to the billions Brazilians have been spending on South Florida real estate in recent years and the $16.8 billion in two-way trade between Brazil and the Miami Customs District, which includes airports and seaports from Palm Beach County and Key West.

Colombia, Brazil's July 4 opponent, is no slouch when it comes to trade either. It ranked second in 2013 with $9.34 billion in total trade with the Miami district, followed by Costa Rica with $7.88 billion.

The Colombian team has already advanced further into the tournament than ever before, and South Florida’s fans have made their presence known from West Kendall to Brickell, filling bakeries, bars and restaurants to watch games.

U.S. Census data show that about 114,700 Colombians live in Miami-Dade County, making up a little more than a third of the 300,000 Colombians in Florida. Colombians started coming in the 1970s, when conflicts between the Colombian government and paramilitary guerrilla forces erupted and illegal drug trafficking flourished.

“There was a lot of fear,” said Juan C. Zapata, a Miami-Dade county commissioner who came to the U.S. from his native Colombia in 1977, about two weeks shy of his 11th birthday. “I remember it very vividly.”

In 2002, on the 25th anniversary of his arrival, Zapata was sworn into the Florida House of Representatives — the first Colombian-American in the House.

In recent years, Colombia has become safer with a growing economy. As conditions have improved, many locals make homes both here and in their homeland.

“I’m enamored with my country,” said María Fernanda Sanchez-Sternberg, general manager of El Corral and avid soccer fan. She came to the U.S. in 1979 when she was 9, attended Florida State University and played collegiate and recreational soccer for 17 years. She enjoys going back often.

All the World Cup contenders, except Costa Rica, are big Miami real estate buyers. This year, Venezuelans are the top international buyers in the Miami market with 14 percent of foreign sales, according to the Miami Association of Realtors. Argentines (11 percent), Brazilians (9 percent) and Colombians (5 percent) are close behind.

Cristiano Piquet, president of Piquet Realty in Miami, says he sees a new wave of deep-pocket Brazilian buyers. “This year we’re breaking our own records for Brazilian buyers,’’ he said.

His explanation: Wealthy Brazilians aren’t happy with President Dilma Rousseff, who is running for reelection and whose poll numbers have been falling. “Now Brazilians are looking for even bigger properties and want to spend even more time here. I’m Brazilian and I love Brazil but this is the situation now.”

Brazilian restaurants from Tutto Pizza Beer House to rodizio-style Fogo de Chão and Boteco, which advertises itself as “a little state of Brasil in Miami,” will have televisions tuned to World Cup action and offer Brazilian fare.

Arruda plans to watch Brazil's Friday match against Colombia with a group of friends —and he expects Brazil will start showing fans there's more in the tank than they’ve seen so far. “The team is feeling a lot of pressure. It's very important for us as a nation to win — especially to win at home,” he said.

The region’s Argentines also are clamoring for another World Cup title, which would be its first since 1986 when soccer legend Diego Maradona reigned. The team is playing Belgium at noon Saturday.

According to Miguel Talento, the Argentine consul general in Miami for the last six years, the number of local Argentinean permanent residents is estimated at nearly 80,000.“There are businessmen, entrepreneurs, small business owners, students and artists, which together express the plurality of the Argentinean culture.”

For Oscar Caballero, 45, a tango dancer who moved to Miami 13 years ago because of his homeland’s sputtering economy, gathering with fellow Argentines at Novecento on Brickell is like stepping back into Buenos Aires: “It’s like I’ve teleported back for a couple of hours.”

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