“Fútbol es pasión” : soccer is passion.
This is the slogan slung across banners, swiping from left to right on advertising screens, blaring out in big bold letters on billboards. It is the slogan flashing on the big screen at soccer games, blinking at you in bright red lighted letters. It is the slogan that shouts at you from TV commercials and radio announcements.
It couldn’t be more right.
The type of passion, however, is not the kind you imagine that you’ll see when you leave the stadium after a game.
Monday, April 18th, 2016, 8:00 pm: Copa Aguila ( Aguila Cup- Aguila is a beer company), Deportivo Pereira versus América de Cali. Two B Group teams fighting for the win in Pereira’s Estadio Hernán Ramírez Villegas.
Riot defense teams (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios [ESMAD]; or Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron in English) decked out in RoboCop gear with belts of tear gas and huge, scary looking guns prowl the perimeter of the stadium, protected by their massive shields. Mounted police sit atop their trained horses and are stationed at regular intervals throughout the grounds. Cops on foot wearing high-visibility vests and helmets patrol every corner and dark shadow, with batons in hand. Stadium security guards are replaced by a variety of high-trained, fully prepared, SWAT style teams. For dozens of blocks in every direction from the stadium there are police scouring the streets, watching and waiting for trouble. It appears there are nearly as many specialty security individuals as there are fans.
Every person we told that we were going to attend this match warned us to be careful. Every person. Arriving to the stadium I realize that with so much security in place, all of those warnings should probably be taken seriously. Nevertheless nothing seems to be happening, and as we walk to the main gates to enter the procedure is relatively normal- get patted down by a cop, have your bag checked, get your ticket scanned, and voila- you’re in. It’s like any concert or big sports game back home. We have arrived early so we grab some (non-alcoholic) beers (they weren’t selling ANY alcohol at all in the premises) and some snack food before finding our section.
The stadium begins to fill up. Crowds of fans from Cali, a historical team with a good winning record, pile into the North side seating, while more crowds fill the South side of the stadium in support of Pereira. The West and East blocks are filled with people like me, interested in watching a soccer game but not insanely fanatical about it. Me, I’m here to experience the true Colombian passion of watching a live soccer match. I’m in the country so it seems like a good cultural experience, and this game is happening in my current city so it happens to be convenient. To be honest, I’m not even really a fan of soccer- I just want to see what all the fuss is about here. I’m here on a double date with my boyfriend and our friends, and none of us are particularly into the sport. We’re just here to have a good time.
The blocks of opposing fans are roaring with chants and cheers, loudly proclaiming their undying love for their city’s team, accompanied by the percussion of drums and the blaring of trumpets. Paper streams are thrown high into the air, flowing down with the force of gravity onto the pitch below. Giant supportive banners in team colours cover every inch of the walls hanging over into the field and every space among the fans seating is occupied with even more posters and banners. Coloured sparklers and lights shine out from the ends of the stadium as if we are at a concert, the brilliance catching our eyes and drawing our attention away from the field. The sounds resonate within the stadium walls and filter up through the open roof towards the night sky where the almost-full moon is shining brightly. It begins, and it remains this way constantly throughout the entire two hours that we are inside the stadium. There is never a moment when the cheering pauses. This is the kind of passion I imagined.
The match goes regularly for a long time- the score stays at 0-0 for most of the game, and about fifteen minutes before the end of the match Pereira scores. At 1-0, the fans are going nuts. Unfortunately for América de Cali, they are unable to successfully even out the score, and Pereira wins the match. We follow the outflow of people towards one of the exits. We just barely make it out the gate of the stadium, when all of a sudden there is a group of RoboCops standing in front of us, blocking our way out, and pushing us back into the building. A fight between América de Cali and Pereira fans has already broken out in front of the stadium and they are trying to keep us away from it. They push us all back into the stadium building and close the gates. We are locked inside. There are too many people for us to be able to see anything but we can hear some loud noises- people shouting. It is all over within a few minutes and a cop comes to open the gate again.
We walk towards a bus station to try and get a bus home but the station is several blocks away from the stadium and hoards of fans are heading the same way. We ask some cops on a street corner what’s happening and they advise us to go to a different station a bit farther away, since most of the América de Cali fans are headed to the same one we are- to avoid problems, they stated. We decide to heed their advice and head for the other station.
At the other station there are tons of Pereira fans wearing their yellow jerseys, but we figure it will probably be okay since there don’t seem to be any of the opposing team’s fans around. We start walking towards the platform we need, and through the windows we can see the station below. A fight is being broken up by cops swinging their batons wildly and chasing away the fighters. People are yelling and running and the whole scene is chaotic but it settles down within a minute. We head to the other side of the station which appears to be safe- no crowds of fans to be seen. Our bus arrives, we get on, and everything seems chill and normal.
The bus waits in the station for about five minutes for passengers, so we are just sitting in our seats, waiting for it to leave. About one minute before it leaves a huge crowd of Pereira fans shows up and fills the entire back of the bus, right behind where we are sitting. They fill the seats and then begin sitting on the tops of the seats and hanging from the holding bars that run along the ceiling of the bus. Within seconds my entire view of the back of the bus is blocked and everyone around me, in a sea of yellow soccer jerseys, is pushing towards the back. I am being elbowed and fallen into, nearly getting crushed in my window seat and unable to move. There are a few guys who have lit cigarettes and are smoking them inside the bus, watching the crowd closely. I have no way to get out of my seat.
The bus pulls out of the station and instantly the crowd begins to fight. I cannot see much because of all the people blocking my view, but I see punches being thrown and lots of pushing happening and the whole crowd is moving. There are people shouting and yelling in loud, rapid, angry Spanish. More people in yellow jerseys come from the middle of the bus and push their way into the fight. At some point the guy sitting beside my friend in front of me moves and I am able to climb over the seat to move forwards, away from the fighting. We are still too close but we are trapped.
The fight gets bigger and no one is stopping it. A girl tries to push her way into the fight to find her boyfriend, yelling at everyone to stop but no one listens. She screams out, “they’re killing each other! They are going to kill each other!” She pushes her way back out and begins shouting at the bus driver to stop the bus, to no avail. She tries to make her way to the front to tell him to stop but she comes back defeated. A few other onlookers push to the front of the bus to tell the driver to stop and at the next station, he does. At this station there are at least 30 armed RoboCops and police waiting for our bus and the instant the doors open they are inside, pulling people out onto the platform.
The fight continues on the platform and some police are swinging their batons at the fighters and chasing people down, trying to break up the fight, while other police are searching people for weapons and keeping them away from each other. We are standing on the platform watching all of this happen and all I can think is that someone is going to pull out a gun and we are going to get shot in the crossfire. I can’t really speak or move because I’m so overwhelmed but I have enough sense to back away from the main action and try to stay out of the way. This goes on for about twenty minutes and eventually they start letting people board the bus again, after they have been thoroughly searched. We get seats near the front of the bus this time. As they slowly let people back on I watch a teenage boy tell the RoboCop at the door his girlfriend is pregnant so he shouldn’t push her. “ She’s pregnant! She is pregnant!” he repeats over and over as his girlfriend stands leaning against the door with tears in her eyes, hair tangled and shirt stained with someone else’s blood.
Some fans try to push past one of the riot police standing in the door of the bus. He stumbles backwards into me and his huge, bullet-proof plastic shield hits my arm as he falls. In this moment I picture the seething, impassioned, violent, enraged crowd stampeding into the bus and continuing to try to kill each other. I picture myself getting stabbed or shot. I picture my friends hurt, and me, unable to help them. I sit motionless and in shock, paralyzed with fear. Instantly five more cops are there to pull back the offenders. The eyes of the fighters are full of pure, unadulterated hatred for one another and the air around us contains so much tension that it is hard to breathe normally. I make eye contact with one of the RoboCops just outside the doors of the bus as he pushes several rowdy early-twenty-somethings back, back, back, trying to keep them out of the fight. His eyes are bright, fierce, dark, and infuriated, all at the same time, and this both frightens and intrigues me. We watch helplessly as police fight with rioters, and we wait as the violence plays out in front of us. We wait for the tear gas to be activated or for guns to be fired. We wait for someone to die in front of us. We wait, imagining all of the terrible things that this situation could very quickly escalate to.
We wait, but instead of escalating, the situation calms down. No canisters of tear gas are thrown and no guns are fired, although at least one large gun is pulled from its holster and is being waved around by a RoboCop. No one dies. People are injured- they are bleeding and bruised, and walking around angrily- but no one has died. At least one guy has been stabbed in the stomach and is vomiting blood. His friends carry him away as soon as the police allow them to leave.
The bus leaves the station and continues on its route normally as if nothing has happened. People begin chit-chatting and having casual conversations all around us, which gives me a strange sensation for something that is so normal. We sit in complete silence and stare at anything except other people, contemplating what just happened and trying to gauge our own states of being until the bus arrives at our stop. We robotically stand up and walk off the bus which only minutes before had been a death trap. As we get off the bus we observe ten police motorcycles, each carrying a regular cop and a RoboCop, a mobile anti-disturbances squadron armoured truck, and two patrol cars, all with their lights flashing. They have been following our bus since it left the station where the showdown happened, waiting for another fight to start.
This is the not the passion I imagined every time I heard or read the soccer slogan.
Soccer is not violence. Soccer is not anger. Soccer is not rage and hate and pain.
Soccer is an excuse for people to fight. Soccer is a way to hide your personal vendettas behind the faces of impassioned fanatical people. Soccer is a scapegoat.
This fight was amongst people who are all fans of the SAME team. Soccer is not the reason they fought. They used the game as a cover for acting on their wild emotions. It provides a space, a time, and a cover for them to lash out, and they blame it on the “passion” brought on by the game.
Stories travel through the grapevine here in Colombia about youth in schools fighting to kill each other because someone slept with someone else’s girlfriend, or about drug-addicted teenagers who kill their teacher because the teacher gave them a bad grade. Students come to school with brass knuckles and knives. Students belong to gangs; students belong to families with gang affiliations. All of this is happening in society here, before you ever involve soccer. Soccer matches are the perfect public event where there is so much “passion” that people go crazy; except most of the fighting that actually happens isn’t related to the sport at all.
Not once in my life have I ever experienced such a thing and I don’t wish to go through it ever again. In terms of rioting or fighting I know it was actually incredibly tame: no tear gas or guns were used, and a lot of what we experienced was intimidation. In the end, we were completely fine, physically; but the emotional and psychological parts of it are lingering and I’m waiting for a flashback to hit me at some point. I must say that I never imagined a soccer game would have this effect on me. I wanted a cultural experience and I got it, but it is in such opposition to the Colombia that I know and have grown to love that it really stunned me.
I adore this country for so many reasons, and in many ways I have been an ambassador for it, encouraging people to travel here and check it out. I want tourism to grow here. It is a great country with a wide variety of environments and a lot of interesting history. I have been living here for almost a year and overall my experience has been positive. I have lived through some very strange and very scary moments, but by some luck of the draw I have always been okay (for the record, the running list so far includes the following: I have been hustled, nearly robbed, almost run over, threatened, cat-called, followed, and in the midst of a huge fight…). In such moments I always find myself asking why I’m living in this country, but afterwards it always gives me so much to think about. Life here is gritty and unfair and sometimes plain violent, but it is also incredibly rewarding and full of so much passion that life at home (read: North America, specifically Canada) seems absolutely dull. I’ve decided that I’ll stick with the crazy/unexpected/potentially dangerous/passionate combination over the safe/boring version, for now.