As I sat down in front of the TV last night — still buzzed from the mate I had earlier in the afternoon — to watch the Olympic semifinal football game of Argentina vs Brazil. I found it interesting that the national teams of the two countries that influenced and affected me so much recently would meet in the Olympics, in a sport that inadvertently became a central factor of my life during that time. Argentina was favored to win the game, the entire tournament by some, but this would be one of the most exciting matches against two long time soccer rivals and neighboring countries.
So, a little personal history is in order. I spent the past “winter”, from December 2007 to March 2008 in South America. For the three months prior I was ready to go, counting down the days. I knew very little about any of the countries I’d be traveling through (the original “plan” was to travel the majority of the continent), but I ended up splitting my time almost equally between Brazil and Argentina.
I arrived in Brazil anxious and unsure, nervous about the next three months of traveling without much of a plan, in unfamiliar countries in which I didn’t speak the language. On top of the anxiety of arriving in a strange new land, I would be seeing my then-partner Megan for the first time in three months, and traveling with her for the following three months.
I arrived in Salvador de Bahia, a large, mostly poor, beach city in the northeast of the country, where nearly everyone except the tourists are of Afro-Brazilian decent, my skin and eye color made me stick out even before I opened my non-Portuguese speaking mouth.
Let me take a step back again. Football (soccer) inadvertently became a part of my life before I even left the US. I got a phone call from Megan one afternoon, she was in Salvador and had gone to a game, the last of the season, when a hole opened up in the bleachers and half a dozen spectators fell to their deaths during the post-game celebration of the local team advancing to the next division. Luckily she was fine, and didn’t even know about the tragedy until she left the stadium. But it was that event that made me realize that foreign soccer and the soccer fans and events are as big and crazy, if not more so, than they are portrayed to be to us folks in the US.
When I arrived in December soccer was on hiatus, not just in Salvador, but all over the continent. On the long bus ride to Rio de Janeiro I read the majority of my Lonely Planet travel guide, including the small article on the soccer teams or Rio state. Arriving in Rio and meeting Andre and Monique from couchsurfing, our hosts for the next week and a half, I found out that soccer was done for a few weeks, but would soon be back, it wasn’t like the off season we’re used to in the US, just a short break for the holidays.
The next few weeks were soccer free. There were still plenty of signs of the sports influence, jerseys and flags for sale everywhere you looked, kids playing soccer in the streets, but no games on television or at the stadiums.
We left Rio and arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina a couple of days before Christmas, still no soccer. After New Year’s we headed south into Patagonia, camping for nearly a month. Without television or cities with more than 20,000 inhabitants, I wasn’t sure when professional soccer started again, but it was definitely back in a big way by the time we reached Mendoza a month later. Mendoza, a city of about 100,000 people, the biggest we had been in all month, was hosting a match between Boca Jrs and River Plate, the two big rival teams in Buenos Aires. Sadly, I didn’t know about it until it was too late, but some kids from the hostel I was at went and according them the scene was pure chaotic fun. Soccer was back in a big way.
Arriving in Cordoba and meeting up with Pablo, another couchsurfing host we up and left town with Jorge a Chilean friend of his to see some small towns in the country and do some camping and hiking. After spending a long day and evening exploring some small towns we arrived at a campground (after getting lost) around midnight. The owners almost wouldn’t let us in, telling us the campground was closed for the night, Pablo later explained that they were worried and scared, paranoid city folk from Buenos Aires. As we found a site and started to settle in for the night we quickly heard the loud and rambunctious neighbors.
As Megan and Jorge decided to go to sleep, Pablo and I embraced the neighbors. They came over with Quilmes in hand (the national beer of Argentina), about six men and two women, all of them in their mid-twenties. They’re drunk and having fun, on vacation from Buenos Aires. No one speaks English except for one of the girls and Pablo, and surprisingly, for the first time in all my travels, my Spanish is just as good as their English. I’m wearing a jacket I bought a few weeks before, a 2006 World Cup Argentina jacket with Maradona’s number on the back. A couple of the guys see this and for the next 30 minutes all they can talk about is futbol. They’re trying to teach me phrases in Spanish: “Maradona es dio” while pointing toward the stars and “Boca basura”.
They invite Pablo and I to go for a walk. I was unsure of what this entailed, but grabbed a liter beer and headed off with them. It’s dark out, there’s no moon –which made stargazing great, we could see the milky way, but wasn’t good for navigation. We had one small, dim flashlight, which died very soon after we set out. We walked along, struggling to communicate with each other, using Pablo and the girl that spoke English as translators at times, drunkenly wandering down dirt roads and trails.
Going around a corner one of the girls screams. The guys go running towards her and I learn a new word in Spanish: “vaca!” they say as I see a big ugly cow staring at us from the side of the road. We continue walking, I ask if we have a destination, they tell me we’re looking for UFO’s. Finally we reach a river we decide not to cross so we turn back. They see that I’m wearing sandals not closed toed shoes and proclaim “estás loco!” and warn me of all the critters and creatures that will attack my feet at any moment. Pablo assures me that this is just the paranoid effects of the city once again.
We end the night with more talk of soccer and Argentina. They want to make sure I know that David Beckham is gay. Make sure I know River Plate is the best futbol team in the world. They share with me the best Argentine rock band: Los Piojos and the best porn star: Coca Sarli and then we call it a night.
Two weeks later we arrive back in Rio. This is where the soccer fever really begins. Amber, a friend from the states came to visit Rio. On the bus from the airport to Monique and Andre’s house in the Zona Norte — the completely untouristy half of the city where the Maracanã (the soccer stadium) is located — when as we get closer and closer to the stadium we see more and more rowdy fans waving flags, all dressed in red and black. The closer we get the more traffic, more people, more noise. We see a bus with face-painted hooligans coming out the windows screaming and yelling, supporting their teams. The street in front of the stadium is literally a sea of people, nearly all of them dressed in red and black the team colors of Flamengo. Our bus makes it past and we get back to the house and ask Andre why the occasion was. He tells us that Flamengo is playing Botafogo, cross town rivals in a qualifying match for the Copa Libertadores, the biggest tournament in South America. Flamengo we learn is like the Raiders of Brazilian soccer, the fans are violent and take things seriously.
Amber is a big jetlagged, just having arrived in Rio from San Francisco, but we decide to go down the street to a barzino (a small bar, with mostly outdoor seating and cheap beer) to have some beer and watch the game. The tv is on and they place is full, with full tables spilling out onto the sidewalk. We grab a table and order beers, looking around to see that nearly everyone is wearing Flamengo jerseys. There are a few Botafogo fans, but everything is mostly friendly among them. Profanity is yelled when someones team isn’t doing well, “porra” is a favorite insult, yelled when something goes wrong, it literally translates to “semen”. We drink and watch the game, Flamengo ends up winning, the people go wild. We walk back to the house and I talk with Andre about soccer. His team is Fluminense, I want to buy a soccer jersey as a souvenir so I decide to get a Fluminense jersey. And it just so happens that they’re playing at the Maracanã in a few days. We decide to go, take a cab to the stadium and look for the ticket window. We’re being harassed by scalpers. I use my best Portuguese to ask a cop near the entrance where to buy tickets, he yells at the scalpers and then says something which I don’t understand at all. He wanders off, I’m thinking that he told me where to go and I didn’t understand him. We start to walk off when all of a sudden he yells at us. We look back and he has someone with him, someone holding three tickets with a smile on his face and telling us to go quickly as the game is about to start. We somehow just lucked into three free tickets, not the best seats in the house, but saving $10 is a big deal when you’re traveling for three months.
Nearly everyone was dressed in Fluminense clothing, there were rowdy, fun loving, fans waving giant flags and beating drums. People yelling at the referee’s when they didn’t like a call, ecstatic when Fluminense scored a goal. It was by far one of the most fun times I’ve had at a sporting event in my life.
A few days later I left South America and landed back in San Diego. Soon after I heard that the Argentina national team would be playing the Mexico national team at Qualcomm Stadium. You can read about that here.
One thing I noticed about soccer, one of the reasons I think I enjoy watching it (every once in a while) so much is that it’s fast paced with very little room for commercials. In a 90 minute game the only time for commercial breaks is during the short half time, with the rest of the game nonstop play.
Argentina won the game last night, they’re advancing to the finals to play Nigeria Friday night.