Thursday, April 23, 2009

#4 - It's called futbol!

I have always been and always will be a bit of a sports nut. If there is a competition, I want to watch, participate, comment, or in any other way be involved as much as I can. I find it interesting and entertaining to see how people preform under immediate stress, and there is no other arena where stress can be focused on one singular outcome while having no real impact on life. It is a microcosm of life, but fortunately, it is just a game.

In my recent travels, this love of sport has introduced me to games outside of the one's we associate with North America (hockey, basketball, football and baseball) and have grown to include rugby and cricket. Yes even cricket!! Did you know Canada is the most successful cricket nation outside of the test cricket nations, putting us somewhere in the realm of 8th or 9th in the world, meaning outside of hockey, cricket is arguably our most successful team sports venture! A Canadian even holds the record for the fastest 100 runs scored in World Cup history and we have recently qualified for our third straight World Cup in 2011!!

But more than any other sport, soccer has taken centre stage in my sports obsession as it is easily the most popular sport on the planet, and the one that is easiest to begin a conversation about while traveling.

And this brings me to #4 on my top ten list over the last couple of years, soccer in Ecuador.

#4 - It's called futbol

I knew when we left for Ecuador, soccer...ahem, excuse, was going to be a central part of my experience. We were headed to Quito which is home of the Ecuadorian national soccer team, and I knew like all South American countries, soccer is a part of the national fabric. But all second hand knowledge takes a back seat to first hand experiences, and in this case, nothing could be truer.

On arriving in Quito, I was instantly aware I was somewhere else on the sporting landscape when my Toronto FC shirt was instantly recognized. I mean this was August 2008, this shirt wasn't even completely recognizable in Toronto yet. But here I was, getting off the plane in Quito proudly sporting my city's kit, hoping to inform the masses about this phenomenon called TFC beginning to take root in southern Ontario, only to have it recognized for what it was instantly - a new team playing in a crap American league. Ouch! Fortunately this was the hardest lesson learned, the rest were enjoyable experiences punctuated with singing songs, marching, standing in the rain, hitching rides in the backs of trucks, falling out of trucks, watching police and fans do battle (with the fans often coming out on top - as with many things, who wants it more usually gets what they want), and with a feeling that life and death rests with the outcome of this game. I even got to witness some industrious individuals who found an interesting way to make a buck or two! (Blogger's note: take a moment with these next two pictures to really grasp what you are looking at! Yep, that's a keg in picture #2..nope that's not beer being pulled out of the false bottom!)

Three days after arriving in the city, we took in our first SD Quito game, and I was hooked. Solidifying this love affair was learning a few weeks later at the start of the school year that by supporting SD Quito I was now in direct competition with about 98% of the students at my school who were supporters of one of Quito's other teams, Liga de Quito. And anyone that knows me, knows I enjoy talking a little smack, and there is nothing I like more than talking smack with students - finally I can outwit...sometimes!?!

The next game we tried to take in was a double-header featuring the three teams from Quito playing in the top flight (there were two other teams from Quito playing in the lower league, with countless others playing at a multitude of levels from amateur, semi-professional and professional). My beloved Quito was playing in the second game of the day, but we thought we'd try to get there a little early to catch the end of the first match - boy were we in for a surprise. Despite having tickets for the games, there was no getting in as security had bolted the gates shut - no getting in or out. This seemed to actually be expected as many people waited patiently for the final whistle of the first game, but when it became obvious they were not planning on letting nearly as many people in for the second match as were waiting to get in (this might have had something to do with not being able to get out!?!), well then things took a little turn. Nothing dangerous (yet) or anything, just your average people scaling the wall surrounding the stadium, and then running in a million different directions, overwhelming the security and police on horse back. The term 'Chinese fire drill' comes to mind, but I believe that to be offensive to the Chinese, so if I ever witness scene that ever comes close to replicating this , it will forever be known to me as 'an Ecuadorian double-header'!

Eventually security relented and we managed to squeeze into the already packed stadium, finally making our way into the stadium itself. Problem was, we were about 12 deep in the standing room section making it impossible for anyone we were with to get a view (our passions hadn't rooted deep enough that we were willing to just be in the stadium for the sake of being there...yet). What finally ended our little escapade was when turning to inquire about the noise taking place at the doors immediately behind us only to see a group of fans(?) thrust past security, swing the security doors wide, and watch as 200 or more souls come crushing into the stadium. Fortunately being tall, and a gringo, I manage to avoid most of the crush, and fortunately, Tasha being small and quick, managed to duck into the washroom. On that note, we left, but another lesson was learned, get there early! Really early.

As I mentioned, Quito has a number of teams playing at a high level of competition, but there are two teams that reflect, and thereby divide, the population more than any others - SD Quito, with its history based in old-Quito, and Liga de Quito, the relative new kid on the block, representing new-Quito. Old vs. New. Proletariat vs. Bourgeoisie. And despite my feelings that sport should never be taken too seriously, this is not the case between the fan bases of these two teams, and tensions run high. But wanting to see this first hand, I took part in a rare experience that I will never forget - the march onto Liga's stadium.

Meeting at SD Quito's training facility a couple of hours before the game, a few hundred Quito supporters clad in azul y rojo (blue and red) begin the rouhgly 2 km walk over to the stadium, singing and dancing along the way, picking up stragglers so that by the time we reach the stadium we are in the neighbourhood of 2000 people. What makes this even more interesting is everyone knows we're coming so we are met and escorted in by police while getting jeered and yelled at by Liga fans. It was quite a scene, which was excellently captured by a gonzo journalist here.

And while professional futbol in Ecuador can divide a population, the national program does the exact opposite, uniting a population with one goal in mind, making another World Cup - Ecuadorians, while passionate about the game, understand that winning the World Cup is something that is likely to never happen, but qualifying and being better than other South American countries, well that is a tangible success they can get behind. The excitement and fervour even draws in the most casual of observers, who can't help but take part as the city comes as close to shutting as it can for one event. And we were fortunate enough to be around for the initial stages of qualifying for the World Cup on 2010, meaning we were in for a treat - meaningful games between continental rivals that I would argue exceeds even the European competition as it is the same 10 teams time and again battling for 5 spots.
But what it really is, is 60,000 fans crammed into a stadium that supposedly holds only 50,000. Dancing, singing, living and dying. Screaming, cheering, yelling, spilling beer, hugging, high-five'ing, cursing, all while crushing, or being crushed by, the person next to you. Standing in the rain for three hours to hold our seats - remember earlier lesson about arriving early - only to be told to sit when the game starts!?! Ecuador lost 1-0 to Colombia. Standing next to a fence hoping not one more person tries to come into the section and then not giving a crap when Ecuador scores goal and after goal!! Ecuador beat Peru 5-1.
For an excellent piece on some of the past qualifying games and South Ameircan qualifying, plus a rad picture I didn't take, check this out.

Sport can be an insight into the psyche of a nation - what it wants in it's athletes and teams is often what it wants in it's people - but more than anything, it's a rip-roaring good time!

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