Monday, September 19, 2011

The Super Double Secret Major Sporting Event Appreciation Society

We managed to get to a soccer match the other day. Now before you go wondering what kind of schedule a family on sabbatical could possibly have that would keep them from seeing even one soccer game in ten months, you should know that soccer here is like one of those flash rave parties they used to have in my 20s. You know, it would be in some warehouse one week, and in an empty parking garage the next, and they would only hand out flyers to certain people and let news spread by word of mouth. Same here; you have to be "on the inside" to know when a game will be.

Of course it's not an intentional insiders only club, it's just how they do business here in Cuenca. "Marketing" is one of those Spanglish terms that they actually use here. But they use it a bit differently. Marketing here means "to tells one's family". You'd think that's not very effective, and you'd be right, but it actually works better than you'd think. You're familiar, of course, with the idea of six degrees of separation, but there are only seven families in Cuenca, so everyone is actually related by only two degrees of separation. It's sort of like George Forman's kids but with last names instead of first names.

So since we don't have the correct last name, we aren't privy to much of what goes on in Cuenca, such as major sporting events that we can see from our window once they start. We had begun to get clues, such as vendors selling jerseys and other team trinkets on street corners, but it turns out they do that whether the game is home or away. We naively looked in the local newspaper, but since they've designed distribution of that source on the Easter egg hunt model, we have not been surprised to come up empty there.

We checked the Web and found lots of information but, strangely, only up through 2010, as if soccer had a great family crisis and had to move back to the Midwest to be near family. We asked restaurants outside the stadium (who would have to schedule staff for game days, right?); nope. We asked at the stadium ticket office...the ticket office! No joy.

We actually heard one game and ran to the stadium to catch it but only caught everyone leaving the stadium. But, we did run into a couple of gringos with season tickets coming out. Jackpot! They said there is actually a schedule but game times aren't set until a few days before each game. Good enough, where? They gave us a website that they must have had close but not correct, so bupkis there. We shortly thereafter did find a Website that has it (not even close to what the gringos had told us), so...would you like to hear about a Cuenca soccer game?

It started out like a bad mystery novel. "The night was sultry; a grey blanket of clouds and rain falling like an 18th-century blood-letting." We would be under cover at the stadium, but they play through rain, so it promised to be a good and messy game. The kids' 7-year-old friend Jonny came over and rushed in with arms open and announced, Broadway style, as if about to burst into song, "I'm ready for the big game!" It really was exciting.

The kids were dressed in the closest red/yellow combinations available to support the home team, and Teddy even had on a Cuenca jersey. Tickets start at $6 general admission, but we had been warned off sitting the kids amongst the hoi polloi. And beside that, GA has no cover for rain. So we dropped the $12 for adults $6 for kids to protect our delicate gringo hides.

We missed kickoff (good place for disclaimer here: I know nothing about soccer) and were up against the back wall. But the stadium is smaller than most Texas high-school stadiums, so they were still quite good seats. The stadium is so small, in fact, that there's little concern that the beer vendor will be empty before he gets up to you. The only concern is that the beer isn't that cold and the vendor clearly has no college experience pouring beer into a plastic cup to avoid excess foamage. And a bomber beer is just $2. That would be $8 in a U.S. stadium for regular size beer.

And besides all the packaged candy crappola sold everywhere in Ecuador, they actually have some great stadium food and fun presentation. This guy sells peanuts that he places in the plastic cup, squeezes lime juice over, covers the cup with another, shakes martini-style, then hands it to you with a spoon. Goes great with pilsner beer.

At every corner are stationed these brave knights in their riot gear as second line of defense behind the barbed wire fence, presumably in case 20 or 30 English soccer fans manage to sneak into the stadium. I mean, sure there are a couple of guys with base drums who led the "Cuenca! Cuenca!" cheer five or six times during the game, but we're talking Cuencanos here. I don't care how many bomber beers they might have had, or how bad a call the referee makes, it would take a sever muscle spasm or an announcement of free salchipapas (deep fried hot dog with french fries) to get them to even stand up at their seats. But I imagine the security measures add a bit of an edge to the soccer "action."

I shouldn't be so cynical, not knowing the sport as I do (don't?), but soccer to me is like baseball with more running and crying. Teddy kept patiently trying to walk me through the game mentioning all the big missed scoring opportunities, but as I add up the scoring statistics in soccer, it seems to me that that is what soccer is: a series of missed scoring opportunities.

And I am ashamed for soccer fans the world over when I see players fall down, grasping their faces as if they just lost a leg on a land mine. The medic comes out, they talk about girlfriends for a minute or two, the stretcher team follows, they haul him off the field, he gets off the stretcher, and runs back onto the field and back in the game. I am quite certain the referees are completely fooled by the theatrics as almost every time they punish the other team by...letting the other team have the ball--a great and deleterious thing in a game where possession changes approximately every seven seconds.

I will say this about soccer, though: It's a 90-minute game with a short break in the middle and no overtime drudgery. You can confidently schedule something shortly after the game, knowing you will be there for just under two hours. There are no advertising opportunities to encourage further delay tactics. Advertising is done mostly on player jerseys, which actually no longer have room for team or player names, so you really have to have your colors and player numbers down.

So our game--having started promisingly with an early Cuenca goal and an opposing player ejected in the second half, giving Cuenca a man advantage the rest of the game--ended in a tie. And even though it was a rainy day and we had kids that had reached their sitting-in-one-place-watching-men-run-after-a-ball time limit, it is a festering, unsatisfying feeling to have spent two hours watching no one win a game. Or maybe it helps to think of it as two hours of missed golden scoring opportunities.

But no, I could tell that it doesn't help, as I found myself jealous of Teddy who left us to go watch American football and eat a hamburger at a gringo bar. Punk.


  1. Thanks for making me laugh this morning. I bet the medic and the players really DO talk about their girlfriends. LOL

  2. I know the diving is tough to get past (it still bothers me too, and as proof, I think of this when they writhe in agony, but keep going with it. Because it really is a big part of the culture, you might miss out on an opportunity for further immersion. And the sport itself really does get more exciting, I promise.