Football. The beautiful game. The great British gift to a world that now displays its gratitude by routinely humiliating us every 4 years at successive world cup tournaments by showing us just how much better they have gotten at playing it than us.
Like innumerable kids the world over, football was my premier passion, the first of many great obsessions. But whilst most never quite found another love like it and kept it close to their hearts their whole lives, I didn’t. No, rather I quickly and cruelly cast it aside as soon as I discovered guitar and girls and I hardly ever gave it a second thought save for checking in on it every 4 years or so when the aforementioned world came together to effect said humiliation on us at the world cup. Looking back I think that even as a kid what I truly loved about the world cup was less the football and more the exotic-ness, hearing the names of new countries (new to me and new to the world in the case of Czech Republic and the nations of nations emerging from the collapse of the USSR). I loved the idea of these strange and distant lands and I strained to pronounce the names of their players. Even as I kid I intuitively rejoiced in the idea that despite the extent of the world out there, there was still some unifying factor that brought us all together. In fact its far to say that I got my first real exposure to geography from the the tournament as it was the first time the subject had ever come alive for me.
It was certainly the first time I heard of Colombia. In 1994 the national team made world headlines for all the wrong reasons when Andres Escobar was shot dead purportedly for scoring the own goal that put them out of the 1994 world cup. This story cemented Colombia’s reputation in a generations mind-set and tells us 2 salient truths about Colombia which still largely hold true to this day; (1) that Colombia can be a very dangerous place and (2) they take football very seriously; without fail, every time I told a Colombian I was from Manchester (I’m not by the way, but how do you begin to explain where West Yorkshire is?) the response was “City or United?!”
Even though I hadn’t been to a football game since I was 9 or something I knew I would have to go in Colombia. It was not so much about the game but about experiencing the world famous South American passion and electric match day atmospheres. I got my chance to go in Medellin, I was staying in a pretty gringo heavy hostel and a few groups were talking about going to see Colombia’s most successful and famous team, Atletico Nacional play in the South American club cup. I ended up going with 1 Canadian, Lou and 2 American’s who’s name’s I can’t recall now even if I ever knew them to begin with. “Sure I bet you never thought you’d find yourself going to the game with 3 Americans jah?” Lou asked. He was an avid Manchester United supporter (naturally like most United fans, he wasn’t from Manchester) but as for the other two, I’m not convinced they even knew the offside rule or could quite work out why the players weren’t wearing shoulder pads and helmets.
Throughout South America, games are usually played at night to avoid the heat of the day. It was the wet season and that afternoon had seen some of the heaviest rain I had ever seen and a thunderstorm that caused the centre of Medellin to shut down completely; I was cordoned into the safety of a shopping mall foyer by security and police officers who were clearing pedestrians from off the street for danger of lightning strikes.
It had also caused the metro to stop for the afternoon the consequence of which was that when we climbed up to the station at El Poblado we couldn’t move for the build up of crowds let alone get a train. It was frantic; police officers blew their whistles to keep order and crammed as many travellers as they could into carriages before jamming the doors shut. There was no way 4 of us were getting in a carriage especially as Lou was a pretty big guy. After 20 wasted minutes with no meaningful diminishment of the crowds we bailed and headed back down the stairs to the street. We joined a queue for taxi’s which was also swollen by the after effects of the days rains, traffic shot back and forth everywhere. However, even when we reached the front of the queue the drivers refused to take us, the traffic going that way would be much and they’d lose valuable fayre time. We resolved that there was nothing left for it, we would have to walk. None of us had been in Medellin for more than a few days so we had no real idea where we were going. However, Medellin boasts a pretty impressive over-ground metro system and it’s circuit towers over the city and can be seen from pretty much anywhere within the central districts. We therefore resolved to “follow the line!” hoping we had picked the right direction to start walking in
This wasn’t a very smart idea. For one, the line twists and turns so we would hardly be taking the fastest route and would probably have missed much of the game. Secondly though, this was Medellin, one time home of Pablo Escobar and one time most dangerous city in the world and God only knew exactly what dark, dodgy, neighbourhoods it may have taken us through. Mercifully, after a few blocks and with some pleading and flashing of gringo wealth (my companions’ rather than mine) the driver agreed to take us to Estadio.
We got to the game. The area around the stadium was packed with touts and souvenir sellers and the air thick with the smell of candy floss and greasy burgers. The crowds were mainly a mix of families and couples rather than the gangs of men typical of the average British football crowds. Faces were painted white and green, the colours of Nacional.
We got to our seats maybe 5 minutes before kick-off and to our surprise the stadium was only 3/4 full and entire sections sat unoccupied. We attributed this to the days rains, firstly Colombians don’t like rain or going out in it especially considering that the open air stadium doesn’t have a roof. Furthermore I guess the general traffic chaos had taken its toll. The section situated behind the goal however really was something else and made up for the empty seats; the fevered, rhythmic sound of the Nacional supporters drum and brass band didn’t let up all evening. As the teams came out of the tunnel the section erupted into an orgy of falling toilet paper as 1000’s of rolls were tossed from the crowds and onto the pitch. I would often think about this display during my subsequent time in Venezuela when toilet roll was nearly impossible to source.
The pitch was waterlogged and I was kind of surprised that the game hadn’t been called off but I suppose in the tropics in rainy season they just have to deal with this. The state of the pitch made the game slow and clumsy. Nacional won the game 1 – 0 owing to a second half strike that owned more to pure luck than intent as the wet surface caused the ball to lob over the goalkeeper generating surprised delight from the crowds, from the goal scorer and shocked horror from the poor goalkeeper. After the game we filed out and caught the metro home which had thinned out by this time.
Watching football in Colombia was great fun but I haven’t been to a football game since.