Two weeks in town, and my Spanish teacher, Eddy, asked me whether I’d like to go to a soccer game.
“Sure,” I said.
“I am going to need a little more enthusiasm,” he said. He tilted his head down and looked at me over his glasses whenever he had something meaningful to say. “We’re playing the Death. This is an important game.”
I wasn’t sure whether I was understanding correctly. “The team is called the Death?”
“Yes. The Death.”
The winter before I left for my trip, my friend Korey invited me to come to the Back Bar in Chapel Hill to watch Carolina play Duke. “And get there early,” he warned. “You know saving seats is frowned upon.”
The game was at Duke, but even if it had been at the Dean Dome, I wouldn’t have been able to finagle a ticket without dropping half my paycheck to sit up top. My dad’s rich friend, Billy Armfield, gives us prime tickets to a couple games a year but his alumni seats, along with every other seat in the bottom half, are unavailable for the Duke-UNC game. The student campouts to get tickets—on both the Duke and UNC sides—are legendary, and ancient ushers at the Smith Center refuse to quit their jobs for fear they’ll never again be able to witness Coach K’s frowning mug walk into that far tunnel.
The Sox-Yankees rivalry is similar, but so many casual fans have been so drowned out by baseball’s dreadfully long season that no one outside New England or New York really seems to care who won last night. They’ll play fifteen or twenty more times before the playoffs. Baseball doesn’t attract the sports fan who wants to just go out to the bar for some cocktails and appetizers, but I’ve sat down to dinner in Powell, Wyoming, and debated with Duke fans at Northwest Community College why Carolina is simply a more successful institution and they should be embarrassed to root for the Blue Devils. Powell, Wyoming. I’m good for twenty push-ups if you can find it on a map.
Football attracts the casual fan, certainly, but neither the NCAA nor the NFL has the nationwide draw of two teams that have consistently hated each other for so long. The NBA is up there, of course, but their rivalries are based more on superstar players going at one another than the actual teams themselves.
I acknowledge my Tobacco Road bias, though, so for me, Duke-Carolina, separated by a mere eight-mile stretch of 15-501, is it. Doesn’t matter what the records are. I sat in that bar that night with Korey, emotions quickly cycling from cheer to jeer hinging on a defensive play or a referee’s call. Two gigantic projection screens—one on either side of this expansive room—broadcast the game to the three hundred or so people packed in, mostly current students and recent alumni. And then there was the other room around the corner there. And the bar downstairs. And the Top of the Hill. And Woody’s. And Four Corners. And The Library. And fifty more big screens within walking distance of the Back Bar. Korey and I, our rejection letters long since shredded, rubbed elbows that night with those bright kids with bright futures, representing devotion just as strong as theirs. My great-uncle coached the first national title team at UNC in 1924; my grandfather followed in the thirties; five guys in my family went to Carolina, starting with my great-great-grandfather in 1859; and though the admissions office took one look at my SAT scores and said, “No thanks,” I still stood and wailed that night at the Back Bar as if my own brother was firing three-pointers from the corner and taking charges in the paint. You have to. If you plan to maintain your voice throughout the evening, give your seat up to a true fan and take your ass home to watch the game in your living room.
This is how soccer is in Latin America.
I arrived in Antigua as the rainy season was drawing to its slow, unpleasant close. In my effort to steer near the equator, I hadn’t accounted for this. Muahaha, I’d thought as I scrupulously charted my course. When those suckers back home are shoveling snow, I’ll be sipping a Diet Pepsi on the beach. But the rainy season? In North Carolina, it rains. So we put on a raincoat, maybe some galoshes if we’re feeling trendy, and we step out into the muddied, gray world. It usually stops in an hour or so, maybe not until early afternoon if it’s a really bad rain, but it certainly never lasts a season.
That last long rain of the season—the one that came and went with Tropical Depression Twelve-E—brought with it a heap of trouble, too, mostly in the form of landslides. The sturdy buildings in Antigua survived, but the crudely built shacks in the rural villages took a hard hit. Most leisure events—like the soccer game Eddy invited me to—were postponed. Without highway access, fans couldn’t get to the stadium. For ten days I stayed inside and begged for the skies to clear. For ten days rain fell in sheets, and for ten days mud collapsed from the mountainside onto the highways.
For ten days I read about death. On the eighth day, I saw a photo of a single mother on the front page of the local newspaper, Prensa Libre. She was alone in the photo, surrounded by the coffins of all four of her sons. They were buried alive while playing in the house. I don’t know how long I stared at that photo. At lunch, in Spanish, Beatríz said, “That’s a great shame. I’m a nice person. I like to smile and have fun. I have a good attitude. But I don’t think I’m prepared mentally to deal with a tragedy like that.”
On the eleventh day, the rains subsided, as they always do. People came out of their houses, tentatively at first, anxious to release their accumulated zest for the sun. That first day after a ten-day downpour is the day to do everything you always wished you could do when the sun hid behind the tempest’s fury. We hung our clothes out to dry; we sat in the park and read; we ate banana splits; we took pictures; we walked around and talked to strangers about how “I can’t remember the last time we saw the sun! Ha. Ha. Ha.”
Jan and I went to the market. In Central America, “the market” is swarming and hectic, although somehow orderly, almost ineffable. The air is heavy with an aroma that goes from sweet to rancid around any given corner. The noise is calm. Music hums softly from every other stall. There’s no screaming, but there’s the subtle badgering that comes at you from every stall: vendors aren’t yelling at you to come over; they’re conveying to you, relentlessly, that you’re making a big mistake if you keep walking by.
Endless booths, hugged tight against their neighbors, pimp every product you could ever want to buy. Shoes. Clothes. CD players, radios, mini–kitchen grills. Pots, pans, plates, silverware. Remote controls. Lock cutters. Machetes. Luggage. CDs, DVDs, and video games. Office supplies. Books and magazines. Cell phones. Eau de toilette, eau de cologne. Hygiene products. Beef, chicken, and fish. And produce—seemingly eternal stalls packed with tomatoes and potatoes and limes and avocados and watermelons and jocotes. The proprietors scrape to offer you a better price than the guy three feet over. There is no Walmart. No Target. There’s one supermarket across the street if you’d like to pay with Visa, but some market-goers favor the novelty of buying a sweet, fleshy pineapple from a lady whose husband or brother or cousin plucked it from the earth himself yesterday afternoon.
That Saturday, though, business slowed for a while in the afternoon as crowds of people scurried to the closest TV in the market to watch the international game of the day. I wasn’t sure who was playing—it was the blue team versus the white team—but I found it amazing how everything froze, how their world stood still.
And then, at once, shouting fractured the silence as the white team roared down the field. Right, left. They passed ahead, took a hasty shot, and didn’t score. More stillness. Then another advance and dozens of voices shouted around me.
Stillness. Shouting. Stillness.
The expectation, a score lurking not ten yards away, everybody in on the action, acting as if their yelling made a difference, as if they could scream their team through to victory. If I wanted to buy a cluster of bananas at that moment, I would have been out of luck. Kids elbowed their way to the front while those ill-fated people in back stretched their necks and stood on their toes.
This cycle repeated—bated silence and raucous cries. Completely empty booths pockmarked the market; men, women, and children—aged nine to sixty-five or so—huddled around various TVs. As the signal seeped into each TV, people squinted to verify what had just happened. More empty booths. More people. Gangs of people, united, spilling out of these cubicles on both sides of the alleyway all the way down the line to Antigua’s main artery, so focused, so invested in the outcome of this one game. A sport! Will our team score? Can they defend? Maintain their lead? Hold out for the victory? Is now really the best time to make that substitution? A yellow card! That’s bullshit!
Two days later, I found out that they’d been watching a game between two European teams. Half a world away yet directly linked to their lives, playing out right there in front of them on the screens in that outdoor market.
So I had an idea of what to expect when Wednesday afternoon rolled around and Eddy invited me to a real live soccer game. Wednesday. Afternoon. At three o’clock. In many respects, it’s an easygoing life in Guatemala, happy people always looking for an opportunity to relax or celebrate something. It seemed like every morning I woke to the boom of nearby fireworks, until it got to the point where I expected that morning serenade. Celebrations, all of these celebrations. Relentless. These people lived to celebrate. Had a baby? Let’s shoot off a bomb blast. Birthday? Bomb time. Day of the Revolution? Light the fuse. Humidity only got to 96 percent today? Bottle-rocket bonanza. “Christmas isn’t a day,” Eddy told me. “It’s the whole month of December, always a different gala or party, and in January, we find other reasons to have parties.”
So Wednesday afternoon we prepared to watch the San Carlos Death go head-to-head with our Antigua Avocados, who, along with the Canberra Big Cat Tomatoes of Australia and the Blooming Prairie High School Onions of Minnesota, make a pretty formidable guacamole.
I said to Beatríz, in Spanish, “I’m going to the game!”
And she replied: “I will save a plate of dinner for you!”
Eddy and I endured a fifty-minute chicken bus ride to join the muckle of fanatics bound for Guatemala City. The chicken bus. If you ever get to stay in Antigua for a few days, take the chicken bus. Doesn’t matter where, just hop on one, get off when you feel like it, grab some lunch, and then ride one back into town. The chicken bus—nothing more than a retired American school bus that has been painted over and whose solitary rule is that there’s always room for one more—is the cultural link that will briefly transport you out of the rift of the backpackers and into the orbit of the native. Three to a seat, babies and dogs welcome, often standing room only. You will thereafter appreciate every mode of transportation you ever take.
The game, between the Avocados and the Death—championed by their skeleton mascot—went just as you would think. The rippling crowds displayed all the energy and anticipation and impatience and rowdiness you would expect as a spectator of the country’s chief passion. It was a live miniversion of UNC-Duke.
We, the visiting spectators, had to pay two-and-a-half times as much at the gate for our tickets, but there were twice as many of us as home team fans. Blue-collar workers, commoners, packed the seats around me, and that is precisely where you should sit when you go to a soccer game. Don’t put me in the box; don’t lock me up with the stoic businessmen and their muted cheers; don’t give me an all-inclusive package with a commemorative program and a buffet lunch on a white cloth. Put me up in the stands, that top section there, with that group of guys who are laying Wednesday’s wages on the line for a ticket, three tacos, and a frosty beer. Let me loose in the jungle. That is where we’ll meet the fans who matter.
The atmosphere at a soccer game in Latin America is intense. In the States, we have the Wave. As it works its way around the stadium, people stand up and throw their arms in the air. In Guatemala, when the Wave hits you, you throw trash in the air instead, raining your neighbors with crumpled wrappers.
And everybody there is a former soccer player. When the ball zipped out of bounds, some random old guy flicked the ball up with his foot, dribbled it on his knee and then kicked it back to the linesman. He wasn’t showing off. Every man, woman, and child in the stadium that day could have done the same thing.
“You want an empanada?” Eddy asked, and he went off to buy one for each of us. I turned and looked up to see a guy taking a piss at the top of the aisle by the fence. I later learned that no one had unlocked the bathroom for our side.
Half the time we yelled at the refs, and for the other half we cheered for the Avocados. In the balance, fans from both sides mocked each other. Barbed wire separated the visitors from the home team and every fan from the field. Initially you might think this is excessive, but when a goal is scored, fans from the scoring team bolt up to the opposing team’s fence, grabbing their crotches and pointing fingers and telling them what they think about the shape of their heads. In the States, the Cameron Crazies can cheer as loud and as hard as they want, but they are well-behaved enough that they don’t need to be separated from the opposition’s fans by a steel barricade. Not so with soccer south of the border.
I thought the security guards’ riot gear was a little much, but who am I to judge their tactics for impressing women? I imagine one clambering on top of a barstool, sliding back the visor on his helmet: “What, this? Oh, this is just my riot gear. I use it to protect people. Y’know, from the riots. That’s what I do: I put an end to all of the riots. Anyway, can I buy you a drink?”
Yeah, the excitement for soccer, on both micro- and macro-levels, is gripping. Every advance down the field is met with the same enthusiastic ovation as the one before. Rubbish fires burn in the stands, a sort of witchcraft summoning the next score. Chants—endless chants that everyone knows; the persistent appeals to the referees that there’s a chance they didn’t get that last call exactly right. You can’t keep yourself from being caught up in the passion, the fervor. The game carried no weight in my life, yet by the end of the first half, I wanted nothing more than for the Death—and their fans—to go home losers.
Eddy had given up correcting my Spanish—he was off the clock during the game—so we relaxed and had unrestrained conversations about the state of soccer in Guatemala. I learned that his country has never been to the World Cup. Imagine that. This is the passion of the people of Guatemala—they schedule their lives around the next game—and yet this tiny country has never reached the pinnacle of their beloved sport.
Eddy blames this failure on both the corruption and the players’ lack of discipline. “We have unbelievable talent—guys eighteen, nineteen years old and in their early twenties—but we just don’t have any kind of discipline coming from the Federation. It’s incredible. And it trickles down to the players. Do you know that on the day the players were supposed to show up to sign the paperwork for the Pan-American Games,” he explained, squinting and pointing his index finger at me, “the majority of the players didn’t even show up?”
“What do you mean they didn’t show up?” I asked. Soccer rules this country, from young kids playing pickup around the corner to finely tuned athletes getting paid to play. “Isn’t this what they love to do?”
He threw his hands in the air, betraying the anguish of a guy who was very sincerely disturbed that the players chosen to represent his country could be so irresponsible. “I mean they didn’t show up. They forgot about it. They were late. They spaced out, didn’t write themselves a note on the fridge, whatever. And as a result, we weren’t allowed to play in the Pan-American Games.”
“Crazy, yes. And very important,” Eddy continued. He explained the intense presidential race between Otto Peréz Molina, who has a shady—and very likely murderous—military past and Manuel Baldizón, with his suspected connection to the drug traffickers. “The two key components of Baldizón’s platform for president are his promise to show executions live on national television and his promise to get Guatemala to the World Cup.”
The game ended in a tie, which wasn’t the letdown you might think it was, after a controversial call went in Antigua’s favor to close out the final minutes. One of our defenders stood in front of the goal on a corner kick and inadvertently blocked a certain score with his arm. The ref didn’t see it, and he soon let loose his final blows of the whistle. The opposing coach was red-faced screaming; players rushed the referee; outraged fans tried to scramble onto the field, swearing they’d meet the ref in his locker room. The security guards locked the place down, took care of everything.
I sprinted a mile or so with the masses of visiting fans to catch the chicken bus home.