On January 23rd, 2005 I was cooling my heels in Cuzco, Peru seeing the sites and waiting for my Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu to begin. Cuzco is at an elevation of 3,400 metres and I promised myself I wouldn’t drink until I had climatized to the thin air. However, the night before I had broken my promise (of course) and had a beer whilst standing in front of my hostel. In doing so I met a young guy named Marco and he invited me to join him at the big soccer game the next day so I took him up on it.
It was Peru versus Chile and it was clearly a big deal. Marco met me at the hostel and we walked to the stadium, joining throngs of people wearing the local team’s colours or sporting any array of donkey symbols, the donkey being the Peruvian team’s mascot-in-absentia. The ticket booth was curious, just a sign advertising the ticket prices next to a small hole in the stadium wall, literally a single brick missing from the wall with someone inside selling tickets.
I handed over twenty soles (about $6) for a pair of mid-priced tickets and we went in early to get a good seat.
For eight soles you get a ticket in one of the end zones, ten soles gets you a seat (almost) anywhere else. There is one section with perhaps two hundred seats for the people that buy the twelve soles tickets. The section isn’t so special, it’s just that you get to sit in an actual seat, whereas the rest of us sit on hard concrete benches. Marco and I found a great place to sit in the 40,000 capacity arena where we waited in the hot, hot sun for the festivities to begin. Luckily I brought a jacket so I could trade off sun stroke for a healthy dose of heat stroke.
Eventually the teams came out to warm up and there was some hullaballoo midfield with pretty girls and officials and soon all the Peru players were introduced. The few that were from Cuzco got huge applause, especially #15, a strong-looking player with long dreads who happened to be Marco’s cousin.
As the game got underway an entire section in the cheap seats started singing songs and they never stopped. One drum, one trumpet, and about two hundred people sang and played constantly, marching around cheering on their heroes. After ten solid minutes I was impressed with their stamina, but when they didn’t even stop for half-time I couldn’t believe their fortitude.
Of course non-North American sports includes the whole whistling thing that runs opposite to the way we do things on this side of the pond. Whistling in most arenas of the world is the equivalent of booing, and a harsh and abrasive sound it is too when the sound is 40,000 strong.
Early in the second half Peru scored the first goal of the game. Everyone cheered, I whistled; force of habit. I would have crawled under my seat if I had one.
The few times that a ball went over the fence and into the stands all the kids scrambled for it just like kids do back home with hockey pucks or baseballs, only they did it solely for the honour of kicking the ball back over the fence onto the field. It happened three times during the match and keeping the ball seemed to be not an option.
The match ended in a 1-1 tie and as soon as the game was over eighty or so police officers decked out in full riot gear that had been sitting on the sidelines watching the game took their positions ringing the soccer pitch. The Peruvian team left the field and as we were cheering for them all of a sudden I saw the entire other side of the stadium rush the fences towards the Chilean team. Here we go, I thought, but no, I assumed that I was about to witness a real-live soccer riot but it turns out the Chilean players were throwing their jerseys into the stands and people were clamouring to get their hands on one.
I had never been to a futbol game before and frankly I don’t care for the sport at all, but it turned out being a pretty good time. The best part was having someone to root for and Marco’s cousin was on top of the ball all day, so that made it extra fun.
I sure am glad I had that beer in front of my hostel the night before. Cheers to broken promises.