I came to South America because of what I had heard. I had heard about the beautiful Spanish language, and the beautiful Latin-American women. I had heard about the towering Andes, and the sprawling Amazon rainforest. The markets, the music, the dancing, the political turmoil and the wonderful people and the food, the food the food. Most of all though, I had heard about the football.
For many South American’s, football is life, and Bolivians are no exception. Since I arrived in Cochabamba in mid-October, one of my Bolivian friends, Andres the San Jose Fan, had been urging and urging me; “you have to come and see my team play, our fans are the craziest in all of Bolivia.” With an endorsement like that it I don’t know how it took me two months to get to a game – no irony here by the way, craziness at a football game is something that lit my eyes up instantly. On Wednesday the 7th of December though, after stalling and stalling, I finally made it. The team that Andres the San Jose Fan was talking about was, of course, San Jose Oruro, and the game was against Cochabamba’s Aurora for a place in the semi finals. The crowd did not disappoint, nor did the game itself, and I’m sure that this story will end up being about one of those two things… but which one – game or fans? Who knows?
We marched through the gates of the stadium at 7pm ready for anything. If the hype was to be believed, the real show would be in the stands tonight – come for the football, stay for the party. My head buzzed with excitement. The flares stuffed in my socks and hidden by my jeans caused a few drops of sweat on the palms of my hands as I walked through the entrance. I was flanked by four khaki police officers sporting shotguns and ‘don’t mess with the 5-0’ stares, but it was all cool. Inside, the place was filling quickly, but we were still an hour out from kick off. I pulled the flask of whiskey out of my pants and had a sip – mission contraband: success. This small smuggling operation set the scene somewhat for the rest of the evening, with the San Jose contingent, of which we were a part, fighting a constant tug-of-war battle with police for control of the Southern stands. No one seemed to care that lighting fires and throwing toilet paper on the pitch isn’t generally considered an integral part of a football match, atmosphere was the ultimate goal here.
First minute, GOAL! AAAAAAAAGH YES YES YES! “This is it!” screamed the sea of white, (in Spanish, obviously) “the game is ours, a lead one minute in.” San Jose had to win 3-0 to get through to the semi finals, due to an administrative squabble that I do have a tenuous understanding of, but will not burden you with here. Suffice to say, the San Jose contingent were not pleased with the prospect of losing the game on paper, even though the first leg of the final, in Oruro, had been victory for them as well. Chants of “no puedes ganar en la mesa, necesitas ganar en la cancha” could be heard throughout the game. Turning to Andres the San Jose Fan – incidentally, he was one of the heads charged with supplying kerosene for the game and not a safe person to be baiting in this situation – he expressed to me what could only be fairly described as ‘extreme distaste’ at the referee’s handling of the game. Apparently, he said, the bastards had bought him. Whether or not this claim was indeed true is not for me to debate here, and will probably never be known – at least not in print. Such accusations are inevitable though, and in a country with a system as overtly open to manipulation as ours, they are also, sadly, all too plausible. Nevertheless, the game should be won on the pitch, with heart – “that’s what San Jose is all about,” said Andres the San Jose Fan; referee or no referee, 3 goal deficit or no 3 goal deficit, rain, hail, snow, fire, or bloody murder, and always with the flares firing overhead.
The fans grew restless as the night wore on; the frenzy in the stands easily matching that on the pitch for intensity. This game is limited for time, 90 minutes with a 10 minute break halfway, but the fans and the crazies dressed in sky blue to the north and white to the south, they know there is more to tonight’s proceedings than just 22 guys kicking their little ball around. I’m still not sure where the real action is tonight, I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to be looking at, and what I may have unwittingly become a part of. Scream the maddening chants and light the fuses on fire, this is football.
Half time came and went, and so did another goal, and the crowd were whipped into a frenzy for the remaining thirty minutes of the game, but at full time, no third goal, no fairytale ending – the final score 2-0, San Jose. A feeling of bemused disorientation descending over the Eastern stands was at once a stark contrast to the energy I had felt since kick-off. It felt like all game had been leading up to something – a beautiful victory maybe, but that was not to be – we had been cut adrift without a climax and the horde wanted more. Before I had a chance to look, the stands around me were emptying of fans, as Andres the San Jose Fan marched past he threw me a quick warning, “they’re waiting at the exit and we’re going to meet them.” I hastily put two and two together and guessed that I wasn’t going to meet them with him – as Dylan Moran once said, “I’m not a fighter, I’m a bleeder” – my sentiments exactly. Looks like my foreign friends and I will be sitting tight inside the stadium until the violence outside subsided. So is that it? Is it done? I had no intention of running out all ‘Braveheart’ and plunging, face first, into a line of angry Aurora fans, but maybe that’s just me. Maybe the final melee outside the stadium’s walls is just another act in this brutal tragedie. The fire, the explosions, the chants, the frenzy; all game they had been screaming and thrashing about, but for what? Was this really the main event? And if so, then what was I, the fragile Australian reporter, doing here at all?
We snuck out with a thousand or so other people away from the strange shift of events out the front of the stadium – out into the night. I went home to change out of my San Jose shirt – I’m not sure what the bold, blue 'V' stands for now. Walking back through the still-buzzing streets I heard a car alarm, the last few fireworks cracking off into the night sky, the last kicks of the struggle. Did I just attend a football game, or a planned and carefully contained riot? Did I just run away from the main event? My nerve failing at the last second… did I just sneak out the back door of this entire story? I spot three people walking down the street, looking disheveled and worn; “one of those fuckers kicked me in the back!” Laughs Christian with a smile, “that was crazy dawg.” Our friend, Andres the San Jose fan, is not so fired up. “We still have to wait until Friday to find out whether we make it through or not,” he explains, “we played with heart on the field, we deserve to win.”
Some people come for the experience, some come for the fight, some come to take notes and maybe light a flare or two; but the true fans come to support their team. The rest is just a sideshow.
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