Team USA did not qualify for the FIFA World Cup.
But a Morristown soccer player will be on the pitch Sunday in Moscow.
Santiago Rios, a 4th grader at the Alexander Hamilton Elementary School, won a McDonald’s contest and will stride into Luzhniki Stadium as a “player escort” prior to the Mexico-Germany match on June 17, 2018.
“I’m really excited,” said Santiago, 10, who flew to Moscow on Thursday with his dad, Geovanni Rios.
Santiago–known as “Santi” to the soccer stars in his growing autograph collection–said he has been playing the sport “since preschool.”
“You basically get in shape. You do exercise while you’re having fun,” he said, explaining his love for the Beautiful Game.
Santi is one of five Spanish-speaking kids from the U.S. between ages 6 and 10 chosen for the Moscow trip in the #ViveTuJuego (Live Your Game) competition. It involved submitting a video of an original goal celebration handshake. Here is what Santi and his father came up with:
His family threw a surprise party to tell Santi he had won. His school broadcast the news to classmates this week during its daily announcements
Santi said he’s looking forward to more than just soccer during his long weekend abroad.
“It’s going to be really cool. I get to meet friends from other places who are visiting Russia,” he said, showing off a Russian vocabulary that so far consists of phrases for “Hello” and “How are you?”
He’s keen to tour the Russian capital, too.
“I’m looking forward to seeing all its architecture and its culture and its history,” said Santi, an avid reader and aspiring actor.
In his spare time, he also practices tae kwon do. But the passion that rivals soccer is LEGOs. He participates in a LEGO robotics club at the Morristown Neighborhood House, and his room at home has two shelves full of his fantasy creations, from futuristic chessboards to spaceships.
“You get to learn coding and make a lot of stuff in your life, like radios and video games,” Santi said of his hobby.
He is not too crestfallen about the U.S. side failing to make the cut for the World Cup tournament, a chance that only comes every four years. He still has two teams to cheer for.
First, there is Colombia. It’s the birthplace of his father, who works for an auto dealer, and his mom, Paola Guarin, who works in a coffee shop.
While Santi’s favorite player is Portugal’s mega-star, Cristiano Ronaldo, he also likes Colombia’s James Rodríguez. He’s not sure how far that team will advance, however.
“Sometimes when they get goals, they stop playing and lose their concentration,” Santi said.
He’ll be watching his second pick live on Sunday (11 am, FS1 network).
“I’m rooting for Germany. I’m basically part German from my great-grandparents,” Santi said.
And his advice to soccer newbies, on how to savor the World Cup?
“Basically, watch it with your family,” Santi said. “You’ll enjoy it more than just watching it yourself.”