Yesterday was one of those days one only really has while traveling in a foreign city. I was originally expecting to write a post about the one incredible thing I had planned. But, as happens sometimes, I stumbled into yet another equally-if-not-more incredible thing, so it looks like it will take two posts to properly address the awesomeness that was my Thursday night in Montevideo.
After morning classes, Liz, Matt, and I took in a nice shwarma lunch made by some very pleasant Armenian Uruguayans and then hopped in a cab to head over to Parque Central. Unlike the Parque Central in Granada (or New York for that matter), this Parque Central is a soccer stadium.
I have the good fortune to be in Uruguay for the start of the Copa Libertadores season. Libertadores is the South American champions league, which has a structure that is likely familiar to those of you who know much about professional soccer. For those who don't, the way that it works is this: Each country has its own league, and each league has several divisions (first division, second division, etc.). At the end of a year, the top few teams in the lower divisions get to move up to a better division, while the worst teams move down. So, if you imagine a universe in which the Nationals got moved down to the International League and the Durham Bulls moved up to the Majors, that gives you some sense.
The league champions from each of the countries--along with various runners-up--get to play in the Libertadores, which includes a total of 32 teams. What's particularly interesting is that the leagues vary greatly in terms of quality. Some leagues have excellent professional caliber teams (Brazil and Argentina, of course, among them). In other countries the leagues might be won by a University team, as is the case in Chile, whose representative in Libertadores is U of Santiago. Nacional, which won the Uruguayan Primera División last season, is one of three Uruguayan teams in this year's Libertadores. Historically, they've also been one of the most successful teams, having won Libertadores 3 times. They've also played more games in the league than any other team, due in large part to their 11 Primera División titles.
Uruguay has a very strong soccer tradition, including having both hosted and won the first world cup ever, in 1930. In addition to Nacional's three Libertadores championships, Peñarol, the Yankees to Nacional's Red Sox--or maybe vice versa, depending on which league you're thinking about, has won Libertadores five times. For this particular game, Nacional was hosting Deportivo Cuenca, from Ecuador. It was Nacional's first game of the season and the fans were stoked. So, needless to say, the experience was absolutely crazy.
First off, despite soccer's ho-hum reputation in the U.S., it is an extremely exciting and action-packed sport. We managed to get seats in the second row--higher is often considered better, because the view from down in front is obstructed by a fence topped with barbed wire. The players do not stop running the entire time, and the ball is literally constantly in motion. Of course, the real action is on the short sides of the rectangle, behind the goals. I have been to NBA playoff games, NFL playoff games, and World Series games. I've watched a lot of sports on TV. I have never seen fans as crazy as the Nacional fans behind the goals.
The most obvious difference between sporting events I've attended and this one is the singing. The fans, especially those behind the goal, spend literally the entire game--all 90 minutes of play, plus halftime, plus a decent amount of time before and after, singing team fight songs. Half of them aren't even watching the game--they're just jumping around, playing drums, and going nuts. Almost as impressive is the endless array of songs. I lost count around 20. I take some pride in knowing all the words to "Meet The Mets," including the verses ("Oh the butcher and the baker and the people on the street, where do they go? To meet the Mets!"). But these guys make me feel like I just learned a limerick only to see someone else reciting the Iliad in the original ancient Greek. The singing doesn't die down for anything--even a goal by the opposition. In the U.S., when the home team's pitcher gives up a home run, the crowd might go silent for a bit before regrouping. Here, the singing just got louder, the fans either oblivious to the negative result, or just pushing right through it.
If that's the reaction to something bad, you can just imagine what happens when Nacional scores. I managed to see this happen three times. Some people light road flares (in the stands). Others light fireworks (again, in the stands). Some climb up to the very top of the 20-or-so foot fence behind the goal and scream with what I assume is excitement, but might well be an adverse reaction to rusty chain-link.
An additional interesting note is that there did not appear to be a scoreboard anywhere in the stadium. I realize that soccer is an inherently low-scoring affair, but I'm impressed that they can genuinely rely on the crowd to keep track of the tally. When the game ended with a 3-2 score in favor of Nacional, no one had to ask their neighbor what the result had been. Granted, the scoring of one game matters a bit less in champions league soccer. The concept is probably a bit strange to those of us who are accustomed to more common American sports, but the score from this match will be added to the score when Nacional visits Cuenca, and the combined tally will determine the winner.
The food (of course I have to mention it, even if just briefly) was also delicious. There isn't really such a thing as an orderly line down here, so I had to elbow my way past at least one child and one elderly gentleman, but I got my chorizo on a bun, and it was completely worth it. Add to that the churro I got from a vendor walking around, and I was in ballpark food heaven. They don't sell beer at the stadium (a good idea, believe me), but one can easily swing by a nearby parilla for some Pilsen or Patricia before the game.
So, we left the game at about 9, satisfied with the awesomeness of the experience (I mean that in the traditional sense of the word "awesome," as in "awe-inspiring"). We had a bit of trouble making up our minds as to what to do next, but ultimately settled on a trip over to the Teatro de Verano (Summer Theater) at Parque Rodó for a murga show, which might have been even cooler than the match. More on that later, though, as right now it's 8:30, the sun will be down inside of an hour, and I need to find something to eat for dinner.
Montevideo Soccer Match