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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Soccer in South America: it’s more than a game

    (Photo courtesy of Cameron Jones) Chile takes on Paraguay in a World Cup qualifying match on the soccer field at the Estadio nacional in Santiago, Chile, on Nov. 21. Paraguay won the match 3-0 before more than 60,000 spectators.
    (Photo courtesy of Cameron Jones) Chile takes on Paraguay in a World Cup qualifying match on the soccer field at the Estadio nacional in Santiago, Chile, on Nov. 21. Paraguay won the match 3-0 before more than 60,000 spectators.

    The one thing I absolutely had to do during my semester in South America was attend a soccer game. On Nov. 21, I did just that, taking in a World Cup qualifying match between Chile and Paraguay in Santiago, Chile, among more than 60,000 other fans.

    Americans can’t truly appreciate the passion the rest of the world – and South America in particular – has for soccer. In the U.S., there are so many options for your fanaticism: the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL and the college equivalent of each sport. Some people love college basketball but hate the NBA. Others only watch the NFL. And the NHL’s two remaining fans love their sport of choice to death.

    But in South America there is only soccer. That’s all they want and need. Kids play only soccer growing up, watch only soccer, talk about only soccer. Then they grow up,into adults that only watch and talk about soccer. It’s more than a sport; It’s as much a part of everyday life as going to work, eating and sleeping. Comparatively, a soccer game in South American gives McKale Center a library-like feel.

    On any given day you can catch at least five games on basic cable television, ranging from obscure South American and Mexican leagues to the FA Premier League and Italian Serie A. The Latin American “”SportsCenter”” consists of approximately 58 minutes of soccer highlights and analysis from leagues around the world, and then maybe a highlight or two from the NBA. Jerseys and logos from the most popular club teams in Chile – Colo-Colo, Catholica and the University of Chile – are everywhere.

    The only thing that gets Chileans more excited than professional soccer is international soccer. This is where their passion really reaches a boiling point. Instead of allegiances being divided by upbringing and location, as is the case with club teams, the entire country is united behind one cause.

    Chileans are nuts for their national team, lovingly called La Roja. The team is talented by world standards, and certainly by U.S. standards, but they happen to share a continent with two of the best, if not the best, teams in the world: Brazil and Argentina. The unparalleled popularity and success of those two countries in the sport has predictably led to a not-so-slight Napoleon complex for the Chilean people. No matter how good they are, they will never be Brazil or Argentina.

    There is also no shortage of other talented teams in South America. Chile last qualified for the World Cup in 1998 because of a flawed qualifying system that gives South America only four spots. Two of them are practically guaranteed to go to Brazil and Argentina, and Uruguay, Columbia, Ecuador and Peru are all talented soccer countries.

    The best team outside of the Brazil-Argentina tag team is probably Paraguay, Chile’s opponent for the game I attended.

    I got tickets for the game solely because it was the last World Cup qualifying game taking place in Chile before the semester was over. However, everything fell into place in the weeks leading up to the game to make it one of the most important qualifiers. In fact, El Mercurio, the oldest Spanish-language newspaper in the world, called it the most anticipated match of the year. If Chile managed to pull off the upset, it would have a real chance to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

    Here is a running diary of game day:

    10:45 a.m. – Wake up. Hey, it’s a different lifestyle down here. You just run a little, take a two-hour lunch, take a nap, run a little more, have a glass of wine and call it a day. I’m just assimilating myself into the culture.

    12:00 p.m. – Watch the local news. After various news stories it switches to a 10-minute-long segment on the condition of the field at the Estadio Nacional in Santiago, the location of tonight’s game. The in-depth analysis is complete with super-close-ups of trouble spots and dramatic slow pans of the empty stadium. Last week’s giant earthquake in the north of the country is really out of sight and out of mind once game day rolls around.

    1:00-6:30 – Head to school. The game is the topic of every conversation throughout the day. The entire country has only one thing on its mind today.

    7:10 – Catch a bus to Santiago. “”Re-hydrate”” en route in order to be in peak physical and mental condition for game-time.

    8:55 – Hop on subway from bus station and drop off bags at friend’s apartment. The beauty of public transportation: $7 bus ticket, 75-cent subway fare and $2 taxi, and I and my companions are right where we need to be without ever needing a car. What a novel concept.

    10:00 – Arrive at the stadium after a quick dinner. Once through the entrance, we walk past armed security guards, through metal detectors, weave in and out of armored cars and wave hello to dozens of cops in riot gear.

    10:05 – Walk up ramps to our section and catch first glimpse of the inside of the stadium. Pick up jaw from floor. In the completely packed, traditional bowl-shaped stadium, slightly reminiscent of the Rose Bowl, there are dozens of red flares burning beneath the lights as smoke and rhythmic chanting from 60,000-plus fans fills the night air.

    10:11 – Find seats – not bad. Slightly off midfield, great view of corner kicks.

    10:12 – Discover that we have the good fortune of sitting directly behind three chain smokers and in front of another. Awesome. I will say this for the U.S.: We’ve been far more successful at ostracizing smokers and turning them into lepers in public places. The biggest adjustment to life in South America has been dealing with unbelievably smoky bars. And soccer stadiums, apparently.

    10:30 – Game begins. Everything else may be leisurely and relaxed, but soccer games run like clockwork.

    10:45 – Chile is controlling the game; the ball is in Paraguay’s half of the field for most of the first 20 minutes.

    10:54 – Goal!!!!!!!!!!!!! Two Chilean defenders fail to mark Paraguay’s Salvador Cabanas as he splits them for an easy goal.

    11:10 – Realize that the only things on the scoreboard are “”Chile 0, Paraguay 1, 1st Half.”” No time remaining, no stats, no cheering prompts or computer animated hot dog races. I really like the less-is-more philosophy. We’re here to watch the game, not see a wiener dog jump through hoops or two old people make out on the kiss cam. Yuck.

    11:15 – Goal!!!!!!!!!!!!! Paraguay adds another right before halftime as Paulo Da Silva’s header finds the back of the net. The crowd is stunned.

    Halftime – At least a 100 riot police set up a perimeter around the field while the players head to the locker rooms. There is nothing going on to require such a show of force. Chile hasn’t given its fans anything to be riled up about, but the mere fact that this level of precaution is being taken makes me think something really bad must’ve happened in the past. I’m suddenly kind of thankful for the rather mundane first half.

    11: 40 – More of the same in the second half. Chile continues to dominate the ball and time of possession, but fails to capitalize on opportunities time and time again. Paraguay seemingly never has the ball but manages to score whenever it does.

    11: 43 – Goal!!!!!!!!!!!!! Another screaming header by Da Silva; the goalie manages to get his hand on it this time but to no avail. It’s 3-0, Paraguay, and that should just about do it.

    12:20 a.m. – Game over. Demoralizing loss. The lone highlights came from the fans, who kept me entertained throughout with their chants of “”Chi … Le … Chi Chi Chi. Le Le Le. VIVA CHILE!”” and their judicious use of the word huevon. It isn’t Spanish, it’s solely a Chilean word, and its literal translation is “”giant testicle.”” It’s one of the most fluid words I have ever come across, as it can be used both as an endearing term for a friend, kind of like buddy, and as an insult, kind of like, well, giant testicle. These seemingly polar opposite uses led to a healthy dose of huevon comments, as a good play by a Chilean player might elicit a “”Good job, huevon!”” while a dirty play by Paraguay would draw loud whistles and cries of “”#%&@* huevon!””

    Note: The whistling takes some getting used to. Instead of boos, bad plays and unfavorable calls are greeted with a chorus of high-pitched whistles, like a golden eagle descending on its prey. It’s the subtle differences between our cultures that amuse me.

    12:35 – On the way out of the stadium, we bump into some fellow gringos and find out they’re from Minnesota and are studying abroad in Santiago. Small world. Running into fellow Americans is always a small thrill, and the conversation is always the exact same. It goes something like, “”Hey! English, all right, where are you from,”” etc., etc. We are united by our uniqueness down here; this isn’t Paris or London or Barcelona. Meeting fellow Yanks is relatively rare and a nice little slice of home every time.

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