We all know that football in North America is still outside the mainstream of sports. Yet in all MLS and USL cities we can find passionate, hard core supporters who never miss a minute of action, never stop singing and with every kick of the ball feel they are just as involved as the players on the pitch. Those supporters are just as devoted to their clubs as anyone in London, Buenos Aires or Istanbul. What we in North America are missing is that same level of passion throughout the stadium. I was hoping to experience that Wednesday night in Peru.
I’ve abandoned my comfy seat at Toronto’s BMO field this season for a year of travel and hopefully several football matches worldwide. Having never seen a match outside of North America I almost feel like I’ve been missing out on something. This week finds me in Cuzco, Peru and as luck would have it just in time for Wednesday’s Copa Libertadores match involving local club Cienciano and Brazilian giants Flamengo.
I actually had no idea this match was even happening, even though I’m always online trying to find a match occurring in a city that I may be passing through. I’m travelling with Jordana, fellow TFC supporter, footie freak and my wife. We spent the last few days out of contact with the world while visiting the ruins of Machu Picchu. As we left our hotel Wednesday morning we immediately noticed on every block people selling some sort of tickets: usually it’s lottery tickets here in Latin America. As we settled in for breakfast we noticed the entire staff wearing Cienciano jerseys. Outside people sold flags, hats and shirts all with the double C of Cienciano. A man stood near the entrance of the cafe yelling out, “Occidente! Oriental! Norte! Sur!” He was selling tickets for the four sections of the stadium. I approached and inquired how much and who was playing. He seemed a bit shocked I didn’t know Flamengo was in town and the importance of this group match. After looking through some tickets I choose the Occidental or west end. For less than the price of a beer at BMO Field ($10) we had tickets to the match.
As the day wore on you could feel the buzz in the city. A parade of Cienciano supporters with full band marched their way to the stadium at 3pm, even though kick off wasn’t until 8pm. We hailed a taxi and arrived at the stadium to find all the surrounding streets closed to traffic. Cars had been replaced with rows of souvenirs that lined the streets. We lined up to enter the stadium and were both surprised at the lack of security. It seemed if you hid something (a bottle of whiskey) then you were in the clear, if you carried it than you had to toss it.
Walking up the ramp to our seats I was immediately struck by the energy already present in the stadium and the fact that with over one hour to game time the entire 42,000 seat stadium was full. I have never experienced anything like this before. We both confusingly looked up to our section for seats. Seating here is unassigned and there was not an open spot to be seen. We figured we would walk to the back of the section and maybe stand there. People even sat on the stairs leading up to the seats. It was quite evident this match was way oversold. Finally we found a spot standing next to the National Police. The officer next to myself was a very friendly guy. I wasn’t sure whether I felt safer when he told me, “Don’t worry, you are safe here. We are all police.” Were we not safe elsewhere in the stadium? He was in charge of security for Flamengo and was quite curious to know about MLS. The only team he had heard of was D.C. United. “I know D.C. United. They are best in your league, No?”
The buzz in the stadium grew as game time approached. As Cienciano entered the pitch I got chills listening to the roar of the crowd. In the North end the main Cienciano supporters group, Furia Roja lit bright red flares. In the south end a smaller group lit flares and smoke bombs, and throughout the stadium fireworks were shot in the air with streamers raining down.
Even though Cienciano outplayed Flamengo in the first half there was no score. I was actually quite surprised the crowd wasn’t more vocal. Outside of the Furia Roja, some Flamengo supporters and some other small groups nobody sang all that much. To be honest it wasn’t all that different than an MLS crowd.
Of course, there were differences. The entire crowd was separated from the pitch by a tall barbed wire topped fence. Every time Flamengo took a corner, riot police with shields would run over to protect the player from a rain of debris. The other main difference was that though most of the crowd may not have sang every song and screamed every chant, I’ve still never seen a more passionate bunch at a match before. If Flamengo took possession, the stadium filled with a deafening whistling. When they crossed over half women would scream as if someone had just stolen their baby. It was if they could feel pain every time Flamengo neared the Cienciano goal. Men and boys screamed at the ref, screamed for a goal and twisted their bodies while pulling out their hair with every missed opportunity. Even the police officers next to us were loudly involved: they tried to keep straight faces but as the match wore on they were involved as much as any other fan. Soon I was pulling for the underdog Cienciano as well.
All that energy and passion quickly came to an end as Flamengo dominated the 2nd half. They scored three times and clearly showed they were the superior club. The Cienciano supporters now sat quietly as they watched their frustrated club outplayed.
As uncomfortably crowded as the stadium was, it was an amazing sight to see. Over 42,000 people literally sitting upon each other to watch their beloved club. There was no music, gimmicks or halftime show. Back home at BMO field I know we have a large group of truly dedicated fans, but I also know that many people are there for the show. Its become a trendy weekend outing. Outside of the few other tourists we spotted, this crowd was here for football. Nobody lined up for overpriced beers or foot-long hot dogs. They watched 93 minutes of football as if the result would somehow affect their own lives.