Thursday, September 11, 2014

Brazil 2014, my undisputed “pinnacle”, despite a significant “but”…

How do you… make an ocean fit into a tiny miniature bottle? (wait… That sounded pseudo-poetic. Brrr… Let me try again… Ok, I’ve got it) How do you… squeeze a  g i G A N t i c  watermelon through the head of a needle?! (yeeeah, absurd and ridiculous, that’s more like me) Bluntly (boringly) put, how do you spend the entire 2014 World Cup month in Brazil, go to 14(!!) games, and then share your memories in just a SINGLE and as SHORT as possible blog post? You simply don’t.

Five hours, 57 minutes, and three seconds to the World Cup’s kick-off at Sao Paulo. If you’ve been waiting for this World Cup for yeeears, you go to the stadium THAT early

You’d all be invited to Barcelona

If someone gave me a euro cent every time I said “I could write a book about it”, by now I’d be FC Barcelona’s basic shareholder (even though, technically, it’s not possible to buy shares in this specific club, but I’m just trying to make a point here), and I’d send free plane tickets to all my blog readers to fly to Barcelona from… wherever, to go watch Messi, Neymar, my favorite of all Luisito Suárez, and the rest of “my” team in action, all for free! If only. “Sharing my Brazil World Cup memories” though, is the very definition of “I could write a book about it”. What I can do here, staying below 1000 words (wishful thinking, as always), is scratch (in the lightest of ways, and just a tiny spot of) the surface…

Half journalist-half fan, about to watch “my” Greece get their butts kicked by Colombia at Belo Horizonte

Two hands raised

“Pinnacle”, and “but”. For days now, trying to keep my fat butt in a chair in front of my laptop and write something about my World Cup month (without deleting it two minutes later, as it did happen 2014 times this last week), these two words kept crossing my puzzled mind over and over again, like students in a classroom, insisting on passionately raising their hands to answer a teacher’s question. So, let’s… hear it from “pinnacle” and “but”…

June 15, Maracana, Argentina Vs Bosnia, first time I saw “10 LIONEL MESSI” play live

Michael Jordan, my English… teacher

It was October 1993, the day “His Airness”, Michael Jordan, announced his decision to retire from basketball (before returning to the courts a couple of years later). That day he said, “I feel I have reached the pinnacle of my career”. I was almost 18, I had been studying English for years, but that was the first time I heard/saw that word. “Pinnacle”…

Greece’s best player in Brazil, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, singing the national anthem minutes before kick-off of our 0-0 against Japan at Natal

Minor bragging coming up

If you’re a diehard football fun, if you grew up watching again and again a video tape with the history of the World Cups (my case), to the point of destroying the tape (there are only that many times a poor tape can be played), and furthermore, if you’ve traveled to Brazil almost half a dozen times and you’ve watched several football games from… Salvador da Bahia to Porto Alegre (yes, I’m bragging, the hell with it), and you know first-hand how football is seen in this specific country, then, really, being in BRAZIL for an once in a lifetime (they last hosted it in 1950, and next time they host it I will be loooong gone) WORLD CUP, can indeed be considered the pinnacle of your “watching football”… career.

Feeling sorry for those who had to sit under the sun, SIZZLING hot early afternoon at Fortaleza, during Germany Vs Ghana

Further bragging just around the corner

Especially if you’re a sports/football writer, if you are given media accreditation, and if FIFA approves all your 14 “match tickets” requests, including for both semifinals and the big final (ok, I’m bragging again, shoot me, but picture –immature- me sticking my tongue out, hehe) then… … … then, even “pinnacle” looks too poor a word…

Samaras has just scored from the penalty spot, Greece are seconds away from making it to the last 16 sending the Ivory Coast back home!

There HAD to be a “but”

Enter “but”… Despite a HUGE dream coming true, there were more than half a dozen important factors that made my whole experience… shall I say… “not AS dreamy, after all”… In a blog that can be read by anyone (no matter if what really happens is that it’s read by less than a dozen friends of mine), I can’t, for rather obvious reasons, mention all the… factors (including the most important ones). What I CAN do, is share a couple.

Gekas has just missed a penalty at Recife, and seconds later Greece were out, Costa Rica had… snatched a spot in the last 8 (%&#$@!!!)

Missing trains-rich Ukraine

In June 2012, in order to catch ten Euro games in Poland and –mostly- in Ukraine, I covered something less than 5000 kilometers, but excluding the 380-something between Warsaw and Lviv, the rest were almost a… leisurely walk in the park, because I used my favorite –by far, F!A!R!- mean of transport: trains. Even those 380km on a bus from Warsaw to Lviv were ok, because I took a day bus, not a night one. In Brazil, flights-aside (from Rio to Natal, and from Salvador to Brasilia), the kilometers I forced myself to cover, were close to 6500 (take a look at the list of the games attended in Brazil, at the bottom of the post, and you’ll get an idea about my super heavy itinerary), most of those on endless night bus rides, in freaking freezing cold buses, in which it was practically impossible for me to sleep.

Immortalizing the… view, Salvador da Bahia, Belgium Vs USA

Moscow to Liverpool, AND BACK

I repeat, 6500km, which is like… Moscow to Liverpool, AND BACK. Or, for my North American readers, Miami to Vancouver, plus 600 miles (6500km is 4000-something miles, and Miami-Vancouver is “only” 3400-something). There were days I would arrive at some city on a night bus, and honestly, I had to take my time, a few seconds, to figure out where I had just arrived. There were even a couple of times that I took back-to-back night buses, all because of my… greediness, because I wanted to go to as many games as possible. I did, and I don’t regret it, but a prize had to be paid… And it turned out to be a heavy one…

“GOL!” indeed. Higuain has just scored the only goal in Argentina Vs Belgium at Brasilia

Pills, pills, pills, and more pills, in vain

Adding injury to insult, I fell sick the night of June 15, just three days into the World Cup, and stayed sick (coughing, running nose, a little fever, the whole annoying and “bliah” package) until well after the end of the World Cup. There were some “good” days (coughing-wise), the pills would temporarily work, but the non-stop moving around and switching from air-conditioned environments to hot open spaces, just didn’t let me catch a break.

As historic as it gets…

Exhausted, sick, sleepless, stressed out to meet deadlines for a newspaper I worked for during the World Cup, dealing with all sorts of problems because of the way certain things are done in Brazil (don’t get me started on this one… Just, don’t), plus several other factors I can’t mention here, all came together and formed one serious “but”… (“oh BOO-HOO!!”, I can picture some of you thinking, the ones who know me well enough to know that I –almost- always find something to whine about)

Messi, ready to do his part in Argentina’s penalty win over Holland

No matter what, I did go to 14 games in eight cities, and despite the real and significant “but”, screw it, screw “but”, I’d surely do it all over again, it was a truly priceless experience, my undisputed “watching football around the world” pinnacle. Only… in case you don’t know, Jordan retired after leading the Chicago Bulls to three straight NBA championships. Two years later he returned, and –amazingly- led them to ANOTHER “three-peat”. My point is, what feels like a pinnacle, CAN be… matched, maybe even surpassed. The next World Cup is already in my mind, and ok, it won’t be in Brazil, but in so-so-so many ways, it COULD be more fun (at least for me). If only I, in the meantime, learn from my Brazil 2014 mistakes… (which doesn’t look too likely, given that it’s incorrigible me this is about, but… just saying)

Christ the Redeemer “supervising” what is going on in Maracana’s final

140 to 155

140 Brazil-Croatia 3-1, São Paulo, Brazil, 2014, June 12
141 Colombia-Greece 3-0, Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 2014, June 14
142 Argentina-Bosnia & Herzegovina 2-1, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2014, June 15
143 Japan-Greece 0-0, Natal, Brazil, 2014, June 19
144 Italy-Costa Rica 0-1, Recife, Brazil, 2014, June 20
145 Germany-Ghana 2-2, Fortaleza, Brazil, 2014, June 21
146 Greece-Ivory Coast 2-1, Fortaleza, Brazil, 2014, June 24
147 USA-Germany 0-1, Recife, Brazil, 2014, June 26
148 Costa Rica-Greece (1-1) 5-3, Recife, Brazil, 2014, June 29
149 Belgium-USA 2-1, Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, 2014, July 1
150 Argentina-Belgium 1-0, Brasília, Brazil, 2014, July 5
151 Brazil-Germany 1-7, Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 2014, July 8
152 Netherlands-Argentina (0-0) 2-4, São Paulo, Brazil, 2014, July 9
153 Germany-Argentina 1-0, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2014, July 13
154 São Paulo-Chapecoense 0-1, São Paulo, Brazil, 2014, July 19
155 Palmeiras-Cruzeiro 1-2, São Paulo, Brazil, 2014, July 20

Perfect circle… On January 30 I started my six months’ trip in South America watching Palmeiras at Pacaembu against Penapolense. Six months later, just before flying back to Europe, with the World Cup already behind, I went to the same stadium to watch the same team against Cruzeiro (this time even wearing the right jersey and everything)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Danny DeVito “scoring” with Charlize Theron, and other Ecuador memories

(My apologies in advance for the length of this post. Staying below 1000 words today, was just… beyond me)

If someone gave me an A4 paper and asked me to write down what I like about Ecuador, I would have to keep the letters little-tiny-small, stick the lines one right-right-right under the other with the slightest of spaces in between, forget all about leaving paragraphs (so as not to waste any precious space), soon I would have to start cutting words short (“Ec”, instead of “Ecuador”, again in an attempt to save space), and I’m pretty sure that despite all my sneaky tricks to squeeze everything into ONE A4 piece of paper, in the end I would… accept defeat, and humbly ask for a second paper…

Back in 2011, during those three weeks I spent there, I got smitten with the country. Smitten, smitten, smitten… This year, 2014, spending more than a month there, I went one big step further. I, dare say, fell in love with it…

Beautiful, perfect for football April afternoon, at LDU Quito’s “Casa Blanca”

Football, yesss, watching games there, would definitely feature as a “heavy” pro in that A4 piece of paper-hymn to the things I love about Ecuador. As a seriously obsessed football fan, in Ecuador I felt I had two major-major allies in my quest to watch as many games as possible. Ally A, the short distances between cities. Ally B, the super low prices of match tickets. Be fooled not though, watching football in Ecuador is not always an A+ experience, important things could be improved to allow fans to enjoy every game even more, but all in all, yes, having earned the right (I reckon) to have an opinion on watching football in Ecuador, after the 18 games I went to in a total of two months (2011 and 2014 combined), I say this country is a shiny gem when it comes to enjoying football.

If you pay a ticket (even just four dollars), to be one of the 150, more or less, fans, in a game which sees the LAST of a country’s SECOND category, host the SECOND TO LAST (Imbabura-UT Cotopaxi, at Ibarra), then you know you have a serious and deeply worrying football addiction…

Quick examples, to give you an idea how fond I grew of my “allies” in Ecuador. Late April I was at some little town called Baños, which doesn’t have a major team of its own. Weekend came, and I felt like catching some live action. So I did. Saturday morning I took a bus for something less than 80 kilometers to Riobamba, got myself a room opposite the bus station, went for a nice stroll around the city, back to my room for shower, and early afternoon I was at the stadium, just a few blocks away, where I watched a game I will never forget (or, “Danny DeVito nail Charlize Theron”. Keep reading).

“To Serve and Protect AND Entertain”, the unwritten motto of police dogs at Quito’s “Atahualpa”, during half-time between local Deportivo and Universidad Católica

Next morning, Sunday, I caught a second bus to Ambato, just over 60km, got off close to the stadium, bought my ticket, went, again, for a lazy stroll, got back to the stadium, watched an easily forgettable game (oh well, we can’t have everything in life…), and took a third bus to return to Baños, 40-something kilometers away. Sunday night I was back to my excellent Baños room, having been to two new places, having watched games in two stadiums I hadn’t been to before, and all that, without having covered more than 180 kilometers… That’s my idea of “value for distance” (if such a term even exists).

FOREIGNERS!! Two of them (in between the blonde girls) are even wearing Deportivo Quito jerseys!! Aaah… good (and a relief) to know that you’re not the only weird one… (Deportivo-Mushuc Runa)

Now, try guessing how much the tickets of ALL 18 games have cost me in Ecuador (yes, I keep track, I’m a freak, shoot me). Let me remind you that in Ecuador they use dollars. Eighteen games, I repeat… Think of a DOUBLE digit number, not even triple(!). Something less than 90 USD, not even 5 dollars per game, which looks even more “wow” to me, coming from a eurozone country (a practically bankrupt one, ok, but that’s a whole different –awkward, embarrassing, frustrating- topic of discussion). Sure, some games were for “Primera B”, Ecuador’s second category, but some games, on the other hand, were for the Libertadores (in 2011). Not to mention that all buses in 2014, from Tulcán (next to the border with Colombia) to Guayaquil, cost me a ridiculous 17 dollars!! In other words, you can go almost from one end of the country to the other, for less than 20 USD!! (told you, I keep track). The absolute definition of “value for distance, value for money”…

El Nacional’s… music band, setting the rhythm for their players, against Independiente, at Sangolquí, a stone’s throw away from Quito

As for the games I watched this year in Ecuador, the one I remember most vividly (months later), is Olmedo-Mushuc Runa, at Riobamba. I got put off by the fact that the tickets cost 7 dollars (which to an Englishman for example, used to paying way more expensive tickets to watch a fifth category game back home may look like peanuts, but if you’re used to Ecuadorian prices, paying 7 dollars for a “small” game like Olmedo-Mushuc Runa strikes as –unpleasantly- odd).

“Strike two” was at the gate, where the people who were in charge of checking the tickets, insisted on keeping mine. It does happen at SOME stadiums in Ecuador, SOME times they don’t just validate your ticket, they keep it altogether, no matter if for you, a visitor from a faraway country, that little piece of paper is a precious souvenir.

At Latacunga it was two of the last three teams of the second category facing each other. What this very entertaining game lacked in fans’ numbers, it had in abundance in goals and missed chances

On top of that, I noticed that police officers were “confiscating” umbrellas at the entrance, something I had never seen before in Ecuador, a country where rain is all too common, and just a handful of seats are protected by the rain even at the “top” stadiums. Having no intention to give away my umbrella, I made a –very- big fuss about the match ticket, and how they insisted on taking it from me, and used that “scene” as a “distraction” to get away without having my little backpack checked. Point is, by the time I had taken my seat, I was pissed off. Pissed. Off. I. Say.

Adding injury to insult, it did start raining before kick-off. What started out as a harmless drizzle, soon turned to “are you kidding me???!!!” heavy rain. No more than a dozen people had managed to sneak into the stadium an umbrella, but the vast-vast majority of –poor- fans had to buy those worthless “rain-coats” they sell at stadiums, or just cover their head with the hood of their coats. A young couple with their little boy were standing right next to me, I was just holding a small umbrella, so, soon I got a “space-mate” under the umbrella, an 7-8-year-old one, who was soooo sweet and cute enough to say “gracias” (a sweetheart of a little boy).

Pay attention to the girl in the jeans. She’s doing a typical Emelec fans’ trick, tying something like a cord to… wherever, behind her, so as to have something to help her keep her balance as she’s standing not on a seat, but on top of a metal barrier herself. Risky as it may seem, I have seen the same trick in numerous stadiums in South America, but never saw anyone falling

By half-time, I had reached my limits. It wouldn’t stop raining, just wouldn’t, I couldn’t believe there were dozens of umbrellas kept in boxes right inside the gates, umbrellas taken from fans, umbrellas that could be protecting them from the rain (in a country, I repeat, where 99% of the times, taking an umbrella with you to a ball game is perfectly allowed), and… did I mention the game was lethally boring? Leeethaaallyyy…

Olmedo were 1-0 up, no surprise, Mushuc Runa were a joke up until that point in the championship, having “managed” just two wins in 14 games, three draws, and no less than nine losses. The second half promised too damn little, and, I shamefully admit it, the idea of calling it a night, leaving the stadium early, did cross my mind… Somehow I decided to stay. If I had not, then, next morning, checking the final score online, I would have banged my head against some door/wall/tree…

Three minutes into the second half, Olmedo scored again. Playing against the weakest team of the championship, someone would expect Olmedo to put the game to bed, score a third one, secure the victory, and make those 7 dollars (and the freaking non-stop rain) worth it for their fans. Instead…

Just before the hour mark, Mushuc Runa scored(!). Now, in “bars where mostly singles go to find company for the night” terms, that was like… a Danny DeVito lookalike managing to make a… Charlize Theron lookalike accept a drink. Then again, a drink may be just a drink, it doesn’t necessarily get you any further. Just because Mushuc Runa scored, it didn’t mean that much, no matter how big the surprise was… Only, guess what…

Later on, they scored again(!!). “Danny DeVito” was not just sitting at the same table with “Charlize Theron”, they weren’t just drinking and laughing, but he also had his hands all over her, one on her uncovered shoulder, one on her thigh, and he looked like he was determined to seriously go for it!! Well, he did!!

Mushuc Runa have just made it 2-3!!!, and Olmedo’s players are trying to figure out what has just hit them, with their hands on their waste, or their head (on the right)

Just before the end, leaving everyone at shock (hardly anyone around me said anything. Olmedo’s fans were watching in disbelief. Olmedo’s players didn’t have the strength to pick the ball up from their net), little Mushuc Runa, the joke of the championship, first category’s little “David”, or… “Danny”, took the lead(!!!), a lead they kept until the end, taking just their third win in 15 games, first away from home, coming from two goals down, scoring three goals in less than half an hour… And all that (plus the priceless look on the local fans’ faces, PRICELESS), I would have missed, if it weren’t for a little voice in my head urging me to stay put at half-time, bear with the rain and the up until that point painfully boring game. A game to remember, after all…

(Somehow, the picture I can’t take out of my head right now is Danny DeVito giving multiple orgasms to Charlize Theron… Huh…)    

(Games watched between March 28 and May 4:

Imbabura-UT Cotopaxi 2-0, Ibarra, Ecuador, 2014, March 28
Deportivo Quito-Universidad Católica 0-1, Quito, Ecuador, 2014, April 12
LDU Quito-Emelec 0-0, Quito, Ecuador, 2014, April 13
Deportivo Quito-Mushuc Runa 1-0, Quito, Ecuador, 2014, April 17
Independiente del Valle-El Nacional 2-3, Sangolquí, Ecuador, 2014, April 19
UT Cotopaxi-Deportivo Municipal 3-1, Latacunga, Ecuador, 2014, April 20
Olmedo-Mushuc Runa 2-3, Riobamba, Ecuador, 2014, April 26
Macará-UT Cotopaxi 1-0, Ambato, Ecuador, 2014, April 27
Emelec-Olmedo 0-2, Guayaquil, Ecuador, 2014, May 4)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Tears of joy, tears of relief, and other Cali stories

To say that I have “cried out of happiness” even just once in my life, would be an overdramatic exaggeration. What I can share without exaggerating, not a single bit, is that I have “shed a couple of tears out of happiness” twice in my life, and the second time was on March 13, this year, checking my email around midday, at Cali.

The sender of the email was FIFA, and it was about approving or not, my World Cup accreditation application. They had said they would let us know “after February 28”, so for thirteen days I would check my email every morning with my heart beating considerably faster than normal. That day, THE email had finally appeared…

Honestly, it took me some seconds to find the guts to click on it, and see if what I had gotten from FIFA was a sending me over the moon “yes” or a devastating “no”. For months I had lived with the hope of getting a “yes”. I thought, by clicking on the email, I could read fantastic news. Or, not.

By NOT clicking on the email, what I did was prolong my “hoping” period, and hoping, not knowing for sure, no matter how… torturing it may be, it’s still better than reading a “no”, and having your dream-bubble burst in a mini-second… The heck with it, the email was there for me to read, so I did.

One of the weak points of sharing a story, is, I reckon, that it’s phenomenally challenging, if not impossible, to make your listener/reader fully grasp the… magnitude of a moment, in this case, of a(n anything but) simple “approved”. I guess if I were a spectacular story-teller I could put you in my shoes and give you an “ahaaa… THAT’s why” idea about what was SO special about that “approved” that made me shed a tear or three, out of happiness (as much as out of relief). Being the just above average story-teller that I am, and writing these lines in a language which is not my native one, all I can write to describe the effect that that “approved” had on me, is the –easy/lazy way out- cliché “there are no words…”

Proud of my silly “centuries”

Same night, I went to watch Deportivo Cali host Lanús, for the Copa Libertadores group phase. A few days ago, now, late August, as I was going through the stats of the football games I have watched abroad, I realized that 13 March 2014 was special for a second reason, not only because I had been given accreditation for the World Cup. Cali’s “Estadio Olímpico Pascual Guerrero”, where local Deportivo hosted Lanús in a very entertaining game, was the 100th stadium outside of Greece where I saw a football match(!). Game number 100 had been Spain-Italy, Euro 2012’s final. Stadium number 100 was “Guerrero”, and not just any day, but the day FIFA made me… shed a few tears out of happiness. What were the chances?...

Kick-off at “Pascual Guerrero”, a few hours after some of the greatest news I have ever received

Sure, it wasn’t my 100th million of euros deposited to my bank account, it wasn’t the 100th and last payment of a home bank loan that meant a house was finally mine, paid for in total, it wasn’t… a “she”, the 100th woman I slept with (wishful thinking…), but in my little silly world where travel and football have almost always taken central stage, this sort of “100s” are silly little sources of, may I say without earning your mocking, “pride” (not that I would mind the other “100s” mentioned in this paragraph –wishful thinking, again).

América de Cali, the team that took “awful” to whole new levels…

In a matter of 48 hours I enjoyed TWO Deportivo Cali home games (check the list at the bottom), they were kind enough to give me media accreditation (which is always nice) for both, they played well in both games, their fans created a nice atmosphere, everything was great, really, everything was there for me to grow a certain liking in Deportivo, buuut… weirdly enough, if someone asked me today which is my favorite Cali team (as if anyone would ask me… Just trying to make a point here), I would go for Deportivo’s bitter city rival, América de Cali. I… blame the (not THAT) hidden masochist in me…

América de Cali, the team (well, the fans) that earned my respect

I saw América against another Cali team, Depor FC, a game for the second category of Colombia. The gods of football are my witnesses, América were awful that day. AWFUL. So awful that “awful” is a compliment for the way they played that day. So awful that if I were a father watching the game along with my little boy/girl, I would cover his/her eyes so as to protect their retina from a permanent damage. BUT, that “they should be banned from playing football EVER again” team, playing in the SECOND category, was passionately supported by MORE fans than what Deportivo had managed to attract to the same stadium just a few days ago in a big Libertadores game(!!).

Respect. Thousands of América de Cali masochists, eeeeh… I meant… fans, supporting one of the worst group of players I have ever tortured myself watching

If you’re a football fan, you know why this is THAT impressive. If you’re not a football fan, let me just say, A) why the heck are you reading this post?, B) it’s easy to support a team when everything goes well, but it takes some serious-SERIOUS dedication and love to support your team if it’s doing pathetic(ally). Awful América sold more tickets for a lousy B category game, than what well-performing Deportivo sold for a prestigious Copa Libertadores match, AND, America’s proud fans, who are used to seeing their team among not just Colombia’s, but –occasionally- among South America’s top teams, swallowed their pride and were also louder than those of Deportivo, despite the eye-aching “spectacle” their team offered. Hell… That deserved my respect.  

A few days later I crossed the border with Ecuador, and by the time I moved on to Peru I had watched several more games. I’m trying to keep the posts as “rationally long as possible”, so… slight change of plans, my February-May football rambling won’t be completed today, in three parts, but tomorrow, in four (or so I say…).

No, I wasn’t angry at anyone when I took this photo (Pasto, late March). Believe it or not, this is how I usually “smile” in photos. Charming (cough/cough/COUGH), I know

(Games watched between March 13 and 23:

Deportivo Cali-Lanús 2-1, Cali, Colombia, 2014, March 13
Deportivo Cali-Patriotas Boyacá 2-1, Cali, Colombia, 2014, March 15
Depor FC-América de Cali 0-0, Cali, Colombia, 2014, March 17
Deportivo Pasto-Uniautónoma 4-0, Pasto, Colombia, 2014, March 23)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Forrest Gump-ing at Barranquilla, and more

Gosh… Trying to squeeze into a below 1000 words’ blog post my memories from a dozen football games I watched in Colombia last February, feels more challenging than preparing nothing more than a tiny carry-on bag for a 45 days’ trip taking Ryanair flights (hence the need to make do with just a tiny carry-on bag, so as to avoid paying their hefty checked-baggage fee). What made me think of Ryanair in the intro of a post that has to do with “acquired in Colombia” football memories? I have two dates for you, 16 September (in two weeks from today), 31 October(…).

Talking to THE “man” at Cartagena

What sane tourists do in Cartagena, is enjoy the beauuuty that the oldest part of the city is, hit the city beaches, go on half a dozen highly rewarding day-trips to much better nearby beaches, go up and down the lively “low-budget tourist ghetto” streets right outside the walled part of the city, dive in the… seductive nightlife, generally take in the whole “holiday” atmosphere. If you’ve done (some of) that, if it’s your second time in the city, and if your obsession with football goes under the “clinical condition” category, then you go to “Jaime Morón León”, Cartagena’s biggest stadium, to watch local Real play in Colombia’s second(!) category.

No musical instruments for Real Cartagena’s “fanatics” (the few dozens standing instead of sitting), part of the punishment the club itself imposed on them for… “inappropriate behavior”

Truth be told, the game was boring. Scratch that. I meant “someone PLEASE give me a razor to cut my veins” boring, but as is ALWAYS the case, something did happen those two and a half hours I spent at the stadium, something that made the experience truly memorable. A few minutes before kick-off, a Real fan approached me (it comes with the package if you are ALL TOO OBVIOUSLY the only foreigner around), and was patient enough to answer a dozen questions of mine. Among others, he explained me exactly what the case was with Real’s fans, who had been punished by the club itself for creating all sorts of problems the season before. Two minutes after kick-off, I realized that my “Jaime Morón León”… guide, was not just “some” Real fan, but THE man among Real’s die-hard fans, he was the one who “orchestrated” the chants of the most fanatic fans, their leader(!). That explained how come he knew so much(…).

“RUN (FORREST), RUUUN”

At Barranquilla, my 16000 pesos (something less than six euros) ticket, got me TWO back-to-back games. Barranquilla-Deportes Quindío for the second category was uneventful, but I couldn’t care less, because I was finally attending a game at the “Metropolitano”, a stadium I had only seen on TV until that day. Up next, was Junior, Barranquilla’s biggest team, against Itagüí. That looked promising, only… I had to leave the stadium during half-time, literally running, having found myself in the middle of a crazy brawl between the police and Junior’s hooligans (I had bought ticket for the wrong “tribuna”). Even during the first half, being the only “gringo” around, and holding a rather big camera, I was made to feel uncomfortable, so when stones started flying during half-time, finding myself exactly in the middle of that chaos, a little Forrest Gump voice in my head yelled that the best I could do was “RUN (FORREST), RUUUN”…

Junior’s “porristas” just before kick-off, when everything at the “Metropolitano” of Barranquilla was still nice and peaceful

Wrong word at the wrong place

At Medellín, I almost got myself in trouble again, by instinctively shouting “GOAL!” early in the second half of Atlético Nacional-Newell's Old Boys. “What’s wrong with shouting GOAL in the middle of an Atlético Nacional home game”, you wonder? Nothing, unlessssss… you’re shouting for a goal of the visiting team (I like Newell’s, what can I say? I should have known better), watching the game in the middle of a PACKED stand, full of Atlético Nacional die-hard followers (what a bloody idiot, I know, I know, save it). Anyway, the goal was disallowed, the assistant ref had raised his flag, it was off-side, so after 3-4 (that felt like an eternity) awkward seconds, I said to those around me (looking at me in disbelief) “no goal. Off-side”. Next second, they were singing for their team again. Minor detail: most of them had been smoking pot for well over an hour, so I guess that kept them… relaxed and in a “cool” mood…

Atlético Nacional’s players appear on the field to face Newell’s Old Boys, and “Atanasio Girardot”… erupts

Manizzzzzzzales

At Manizales it was the first time in my life I literally fell asleep during a football game, I mean, being at a stadium, not watching a game on TV. Once Caldas-Alianza Petrolera was very interesting, full-house, the home team had an offer running, which made half the city go to the stadium and watch the game almost for free, BUT, the night before, I had taken a rather strong sleeping pill to manage to close my eyes on the bus from Medellín, and somehow the pill’s effect lasted way more hours than what I expected. During half-time I told myself “I’ll just close my eyes for a minute, no big deal”, so I put my head in my palms. Next thing I knew, 15 minutes had passed(!), Once Caldas were getting back to the field, and it was the local fans’ chants that woke me up. Embarrassing…

“People mountain, people sea”, as the Chinese would say. “Palogrande”, at Manizales, close to sold-out. Photo taken during the second half, after my embarrassing half-time… nap

Pure “fútbol bogotano” irony

At Bogotá I… hit the jackpot, by catching not one, but TWO “clásicos bogotanos” in a single week! Because of some peculiarity of the way the schedule of the Colombian championship is decided, Millonarios played against Santa Fe twice in a matter of days. Both Bogotá greats share the same stadium, Santa Fe were technically the home side in the first derby, so I turned to them for media accreditation, using my IFJ (International Federation of Journalists) card. I had arranged with a sports newspaper in my home city to write a two pages’ story about those two “clásicos”.

The amicable Press officer of Santa Fe took care of my accreditation in a matter of minutes, and he also volunteered to show me around the offices of the club, a short distance from “Campín”, the stadium, the temple of football at Bogotá. As we got chatting, he pompously said he had no doubt Santa Fe would triumph in both games. They were doing very well up until that point, Millonarios on the other hand had been miserable the previous weeks, so… it made sense. Even so, I told him local derbies like those, “have a logic of their own”, are a chance for the underdogs to draw a line, get back on track. Santa Fe’s Press officer half laughed WITH me and half laughed AT me, as if I’d said the silliest thing the silliest man could ever be silly-silly-silly enough to say. Eight days later, Millonarios had beaten Santa Fe twice(…).

February 22, the “Campín” mostly red, since Santa Fe were technically the home side. Millonarios won

After that, I’m thinking, if I ever go back to Bogotá, and I turn to Santa Fe to ask for another media accreditation, I hope they won’t remember that February 2014 visit of mine at their headquarters, and the little chat we had over “favorites” in “clásicos bogotanos”…

March 2, the “Campín” overwhelmingly blue, since Millonarios were technically the home side. Guess what… Millonarios won (again)

(Games watched between February 5 and March 2:

Real Cartagena-Valledupar 1-0, Cartagena, Colombia, 2014, February 5
Barranquilla-Deportes Quindío 2-0, Barranquilla, Colombia, 2014, February 6
Junior-Itagüí 2-0, Barranquilla, Colombia, 2014, February 6
Medellín-Santa Fe 0-2, Medellín, Colombia, 2014, February 8
Atlético Nacional-Newell's Old Boys 1-0, Medellín, Colombia, 2014, February 13
Itagüí-Fortaleza 2-1, Itagüí, Colombia, 2014, February 15
Once Caldas-Alianza Petrolera 2-1, Manizales, Colombia, 2014, February 16
Santa Fe-Millonarios 0-1, Bogotá, Colombia, 2014, February 22
Bogotá-Deportivo Pereira 1-2, Bogotá, Colombia, 2014, February 23
Millonarios-Atlético Huila 2-2, Bogotá, Colombia, 2014, February 25
Millonarios-Santa Fe 2-1, Bogotá, Colombia, 2014, March 2

Tomorrow, part 3 of my February-May 2014 South America football rambling).

Monday, September 1, 2014

Happy slave to my North, my South, my East and West

Having made it my unquestionable priority to be in Brazil in June for the World Cup with or without media accreditation, and knowing (after years of… obligatory practice) how to make my few euros go –way- further than what one would imagine, I decided to spend February-May 2014 in South America. I mean, either way I was going to pay for a Europe-Brazil-Europe plane ticket, so… why not make that transatlantic plane ticket more worth it (lousy excuse to spend some more months in my favorite part of the world), right? Riiight…

First step in saving money was catching a night bus from my city in Greece, Thessaloniki, to Istanbul, from where the flights to Sao Paulo were considerably cheaper. A few days later, and having added Turkey to my –short- “countries I’ve watched basketball games at” list (Galatasaray-Anadolu Efes), I caught a flight to Sao Paulo. On January 30, I watched my first ever game at legendary –to say the least- Pacaembu, a Palmeiras win over Penapolense for the local championship of the State of Sao Paulo. That was my game number 115 (games watched outside of Greece). Next day I flew to Colombia. When I returned to Brazil, exactly four months later, from Peru, “115” had become “139”…

Sao Paulo summer night, enjoying the view and the experience I got myself for 30 BRL (9 euros back then, January 2014), money well-spent, at anything but modern, but filthy rich in history, and truly iconic (football-wise), “o meu, o seu, o nosso, PAAACAEMBUUU” (as it’s presented to the fans by the guy whose voice is heard from the speakers, “mine, yours, ours, Pacaembu”)

From Cartagena to Lima, for four months, borrowing WH Auden’s words (almost a sacrilege, I reckon, but either way my soul is doomed to burn in hell, so… no biggie), I made watching football “my North, my South, my East and West, my working week and my Sunday rest” (I’ve watched “Four Weddings and a Funeral” half a dozen times, and every single one I got goose bumps during the funeral scene, thanks to which I became familiar with this deeply touching poem), basing my whole itinerary on which games I could watch, where, what day, what time. A “football nerd”, no doubt, guilty as charged…

Now, if you’re thinking, “what an idiotic waste of time… Who goes to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and makes watching football his top of the top priority?”, then, let me just say, in my defense, that was my SECOND time in all three countries, I had already spent several months there in 2010, 2011, 2012, I felt I had done most of what a first-time visitor is “supposed” to do in all three countries, which left me guilt-free to succumb to my… football “nerdiness”.

What I do feel guilty about, what makes me feel bad even now, months later, is that for my own reasons, I chose to spend those 120 days almost as a… hermit, limiting the amount of time I spent hanging out with people to an absolute minimum. For every person I met, I could have met ten more, and for every hour I spent with company, I could have spent a dozen more. Only, I did not. There were even cases that I passed by cities where I knew people, people I had met my previous time there, people I had stayed in touch for two, three, four years, people who knew I was going back and expected me to drop them a line and arrange to meet up, nice people, GREAT people, but I… acted like a rude ghost, staying irrationally invisible. That, I do regret (too little too late, I know)…

(Oookkk… I just finished writing what was meant to be ONE blog post, but it’s well over 3000 words, so if you’re here and you’re reading my rambling, the least I can do is have the decency to keep the rambling doses as short as possible, so for today I’m sticking to what you already read, plus the list of games I watched those four months. Tomorrow I’m sharing my Cartagena, Barranquilla, Medellín, Manizales and Bogotá memories –you're holding your breath, I bet- and the day after that I conclude this… trilogy, with my Cali, Pasto, and lots of fond Ecuador football memories).

115 to 139

115 Palmeiras-Penapolense 1-0, São Paulo, Brazil, 2014, January 30
116 Real Cartagena-Valledupar 1-0, Cartagena, Colombia, 2014, February 5
117 Barranquilla-Deportes Quindío 2-0, Barranquilla, Colombia, 2014, February 6
118 Junior- Itagüí 2-0, Barranquilla, Colombia, 2014, February 6
119 Medellín-Santa Fe 0-2, Medellín, Colombia, 2014, February 8
120 Atlético Nacional-Newell's Old Boys 1-0, Medellín, Colombia, 2014, February 13
121 Itagüí-Fortaleza 2-1, Itagüí, Colombia, 2014, February 15
122 Once Caldas-Alianza Petrolera 2-1, Manizales, Colombia, 2014, February 16
123 Santa Fe-Millonarios 0-1, Bogotá, Colombia, 2014, February 22
124 Bogotá-Deportivo Pereira 1-2, Bogotá, Colombia, 2014, February 23
125 Millonarios-Atlético Huila 2-2, Bogotá, Colombia, 2014, February 25
126 Millonarios-Santa Fe 2-1, Bogotá, Colombia, 2014, March 2
127 Deportivo Cali-Lanús 2-1, Cali, Colombia, 2014, March 13
128 Deportivo Cali-Patriotas Boyacá 2-1, Cali, Colombia, 2014, March 15
129 Depor FC-América de Cali 0-0, Cali, Colombia, 2014, March 17
130 Deportivo Pasto-Uniautónoma 4-0, Pasto, Colombia, 2014, March 23
131 Imbabura-UT Cotopaxi 2-0, Ibarra, Ecuador, 2014, March 28
132 Deportivo Quito-Universidad Católica 0-1, Quito, Ecuador, 2014, April 12
133 LDU Quito-Emelec 0-0, Quito, Ecuador, 2014, April 13
134 Deportivo Quito-Mushuc Runa 1-0, Quito, Ecuador, 2014, April 17
135 Independiente del Valle-El Nacional 2-3, Sangolquí, Ecuador, 2014, April 19
136 UT Cotopaxi-Deportivo Municipal 3-1, Latacunga, Ecuador, 2014, April 20
137 Olmedo-Mushuc Runa 2-3, Riobamba, Ecuador, 2014, April 26
138 Macará-UT Cotopaxi 1-0, Ambato, Ecuador, 2014, April 27
139 Emelec-Olmedo 0-2, Guayaquil, Ecuador, 2014, May 4

Friday, January 24, 2014

PAOK-Iraklís 5-1 (goodbye, home)

In a few hours I'm taking a night bus to Istanbul. I won't be back to Thessaloniki before late July. I had planned to write today a proper piece on this game I watched two days ago, but, it's early afternoon, I have already spent HOURS trying to take stuff out of my backpack, and I still need to work on it. Every time I leave home for a new trip, I promise myself to learn (le-what?) from previous mistakes, and, FINALLY, travel light. If I really-really mean to keep this promise today, first time ever, I need to take more things out, more, more, more... So, I'm keeping this super short...


This stadium (Toumba) is my second home, in the sense that I practically grew up in it. My parents' place is just a few blocks away. The first time my father took me there I still hadn't gone to kindergarten(!). During my entire childhood, we would NOT miss a home game of PAOK. My two schools from 12 to 18 were/are right next to it. And then, I started working as a sportswriter, and Toumba Stadium became my... office, since I soon became a PAOK reporter.

In this stadium I have felt absolutely everything from indescribable happiness to devastating sadness, to the point of tears. I have lost my voice from screaming, and have caused myself a bunch of bruises by hitting my hands on all sorts of hard surfaces out of nerves. I have hugged complete strangers while celebrating goals, and patted other complete strangers on their back as an “it's ok” consolation after heavy losses.

For all those reasons, and for many more, I love this place, and I intend to keep going back again, and again, and again, even when I'm old and I need a stick to help me walk (and miss half the on-field action because of back to back urgent visits to the toilet. Brrr...).

So, goodbye, and see you in July, home.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

2010 mistake, corrected in 2013, in... Malindorea*

(*Malaysia, Indonesia, Korea)

Just like 2010, 2013 was a southeast Asian year for me, making Kuala Lumpur my home for nine months, and checking Air Asia's website on a weekly basis to “study” their latest offers. One huge difference was that in 2010 I fell into... football hibernation, going just to ONE game in a period of TEN months. Having learned from my mistake, I made sure to make 2013 much-MUCH more football-worth it...

Kota Bharu, Kelantan-Kitchee, AFC Cup, close to kickoff

In May, I made a short trip to the east coast, to “a category of its own” Kota Bharu, the “most Muslim city of Malaysia”, for which someone could say several positive things, and maybe some negative ones as well (depends on your perspective), but one thing no one can deny, not even the city's harshest critics, is that Kota Bharu loves football more than any other city in Malaysia, or, to be more accurate, loves its LOCAL team more than ANY other team in Malaysia is loved by its local city residents.

While football fans in almost the entire country are proud to put on the colors of their favorite English (or Spanish, or Italian) team, in Kota Bharu it's impossible to stand still for more than a minute, at any corner of the city, and not see someone pass by wearing the red and white jersey of local club “Kelantan”. The cherry on top for me, those few days I spent at Kota Bharu, was that I got to watch Dimitris Petratos, a young talented Greek-Australian striker, play with Kelantan, plus, I got to meet an extraordinary Catalan guy, Jordi, who, for his own reasons, made Kota Bharu his home for several months, and was a regular at the local stadium, wearing Kelantan's jersey, and carrying a Catalan flag...

Blue... sea at Shah Alam, in honor of Chelsea

In July, Chelsea visited “us” in Kuala Lumpur, and the way they treated the fans made me start liking them, even though, truth be told, I never felt close to Chelsea before that, they had never made my heart beat fast, not even the years they won trophies. When it came to “treating Malaysian fans” though, the club, everyone in the team, were fantastic, and that earned them many points in my head.

Barcelona and Malaysia come out. Neymar in, Messi... nowhere to be seen

Unfortunately, only the exactly opposite I can say about Barcelona, who also visited “us” in August. Even though I'm a Barcelona fan since the Romario/Stoichkov days, and have stood by them even in rough patches, during below-average seasons, the few days they stayed at Kuala Lumpur the club made me feel sick of them. From the moment they landed, until the moment they left Kuala Lumpur, with just a couple of notable exceptions (Neymar being one of those), they acted in a way that made it TOO obvious that they were there just to grab the money and run...

As for THE biggest disappointment, that was none other than Messi NOT playing, even though no one at the stadium knew why. Later, it turned out that he was slightly injured and Martino didn't want to take any risk, which of course is totally understandable. Still, the fact that no one from the team said anything about Messi NOT going to play, was seen by Malaysians as a sneaky trick to make them buy -expensive- tickets, tickets they might have NOT bought, if they knew Messi wouldn't be playing. At least Neymar did, for 45 minutes, and he was a joy to watch, making the crowd go “ooooooh!” a number of times...

Police officers, trying to push back Persija fans

Next, I got the chance to watch two games at Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia, with the first one being one of the most memorable I have ever watched, not only because of the violence/singing/violence (again)/duration of the match (it finished more than three hours after kick-off, because some hot-headed Persija and Persib fans felt like ripping each other's guts out), but also because of the... surreal feeling of going to the stadium with a Serbian(!) diehard fan of Voždovac(!!), and a few more (Javanese) members of the local Greek-Orthodox community(!!!). For Lord's sake, there are Indonesian Greek-Orthodox Christians in Yogyakarta(!), and we went to a violence-marred football game together, along with a Serbian(!!) who was living there at the time... What were the chances...

Suwon, a little... melodious piece of Argentinian “canchas” in Korea(!)

September was Korea month, got to watch four games, and my most memorable experience was at Suwon, where, just after kick-off, I heard the “ultras” of the local Bluewings sing something that sounded awfully familiar... Amazingly, they had “adopted” tunes that are super popular in Argentinian (mostly, less in other South American countries) stadiums, they had dressed the tunes up with Korean lyrics, BUT, they had kept “campeón” in Spanish. They even had the lyrics on the stadium's big screens, so I could see an endless bunch of those super cute Korean characters, and then, in the middle of that all, a “campeón”, sticking out like a big black fly in the middle of a glass of milk...

Baseball fun at Seoul. Yes, those ARE plastic bags some “Lotte Giants” fans are “wearing”

On November 24, I watched my last (until now) game outside of Greece, a simple friendly game between Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, with the imposing Petronas Towers clearly visible, even at seven kilometers away (as the crow flies). If the on-field action is disheartening, if the cloud is dark, there is -almost- always a silver lining somewhere there for you to spot. On that November night, the... cloud was depressing, but my good company, a few dozen fans singing, and the sight of the majestic Petronas Towers far in the horizon, played the silver lining's role exceptionally well...

The Filipinos are  N U T S  about basketball, and the collegiate championship games I watched at Manila's “Mall of Asia Arena” more than made up the lack of chances to catch any football matches in the country

103 to 114

103 Kelantan-Kitchee 0-2, Kota Bharu, Malaysia, 2013, May 14
104 Kelantan-Selangor 1-1, Kota Bharu, Malaysia, 2013, May 18
105 Malaysia-Chelsea 1-4, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2013, July 21
106 Malaysia-Barcelona 1-3, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2013, August 10
107 Persija ISL-Persib 1-1, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 2013, August 28
108 Persija ISL-Pelita Bandung 2-1, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 2013, August 31
109 Busan IPark-Jeonbuk Motors 1-3, Busan, Korea, 2013, September 15
110 Suwon Bluewings-Incheon United 1-1, Suwon, Korea, 2013, September 22
111 Seoul-Esteghlal 2-0, Seoul, Korea, 2013, September 25
112 Incheon United-Pohang Steelers 2-2, Incheon, Korea, 2013, September 28
113 Malaysia-Bahrain 1-1, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2013, October 15
114 Kuala Lumpur-Selangor 0-1, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2013, November 24