The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Nacional Hero

Posted by steigs on March 11, 2008

One of the more ridiculous recent incidents in world soccer was the sending-off of Flamingo’s Toro in the Copa Libertadores for…pushing a dawdling ball boy to the ground in a game against Nacional of Uruguay.  Needless to say, the kid, one Nicolas Dominguez, aged thirteen, is now quite the hero in Uruguay for his services to the home team.

Uruguay used to be a power in soccer, winner of more World Cups than England, Holland, Spain and Portugal combined.  (Granted, the most recent came in 1950 but…)  Nacional is one of their two traditional powerhouse clubs, one that can be found playing on GolTV in Uruguyan league games now and then, and often in the Copa Libertadores.  I found myself in Montevideo, a charmingly sleepy capital, back in ’04 and saw Nacional take on Liverpool.  No, not that Liverpool…  To learn more about mate, steak and my hideout, should I ever need one, read on after the jump.

Montevideo B September 2004            

I arrive by ferry from Buenos Aires and soon come to a decision.  If I ever need to go into hiding, to get lost in exile far from villains wishing me harm, I know where I am going to go B Montevideo.  It is slow and sleepy, out of the way, overlooked.  The downtown of this capital city looks as if it hasn=t added a new building in at least thirty years, a 1950s city left to grow quirky and somewhat dilapidated.  No gleaming skyscrapers, just sturdy office buildings.  The tallest structure downtown, the 26 story Palacio Salvo, dates back to 1927 and looks it, a stylish throwback that was once the tallest building in South America.  Laundry is hung out of some of its windows on this afternoon.

As an exile, I could enjoy the morning sun at a café on one of the squares with the inevitable statute of a 19th century military hero on a horse.  There could be long walks along the seaside Ramblas, watching the grizzled fisherman and the courting couples and the joggers.  Lunch would be at the Mercado del Puerto, the historic marketplace for the port, now turned into a heaven for carnivores, packed with a dozen steak cafes in a space the size of a high school gym.  It gives a whole new meaning to the term Ameat market.@  In the afternoon, perhaps another café or a nap B unless there=s soccer to watch.

I could amuse myself learning more about Uruguayan politics.  A Presidential election is due at the end of October and the associated paraphernalia is all over Montevideo B posters, leafleters, spray-painted graffiti.  One presidential candidate, Guillermo Stirling of the ruling Colorado Party, appears to be B in his posters at least B Walter Mondale=s South American twin.  (His politics, however, are more of the right-wing flavor.)  My favorite bit of electioneering is the rather odd poster displayed all over town showing the top of an old man=s head with the slogan AWe are Fantastic@ B in English.  I don=t get it, even after inquiring, but it suggests a certain whimsy that might be enjoyable to follow.

As a tourist, not an exile, I did have lunch at the Mercado on a warm spring afternoon B the seasons being reversed from our norm because Uruguay is in the southern hemisphere, tucked between Brazil and Argentina B at one of the more casual dining options.  As I arrived at the Mercado, a truck was delivering cords upon cords of wood to feed the fires of the multitude of meat grills inside.  As I sat at the café counter, a waiter kidded me about the novel I was reading.  The cook misunderstood my order B I asked for my steak Amedium@ and got it Awell done@ B but I thought it was delicious anyway.  Still, after a rebuke by my waitress, the cook sheepishly later slipped me another entire steak cooked the way I had originally requested.  It was even better than the first.

After that double steak lunch I was on the verge of slipping into a food coma.  Instead, I hopped a cab to the western part of Montevideo.  The city spreads for miles along the Rio de la Plata, that vast bay biting into the southeast coast of South America, and has a population of about one million.  This represents about one-third of the whole population of Uruguay, with the rest of the country largely farm and ranch lands aside from the fashionable resort of Punte del Este a little ways up the coast.  Traditionally, Uruguay has been a mild-mannered buffer state between Latin America=s two giants, Brazil and Argentina, living off its agriculture, tourism and, well, bank secrecy laws that have always helped the elite of other South American lands hide their money on its way to Zurich or Miami.  The strategy appears to have worked better in the past than it does today, I think, as my cab passes through run-down but friendly-looking neighborhoods.

I get dropped off at Estadio Belvedere, home of Liverpool.  Yes, Liverpool, a testament to the English origins of the game here.  But Anfield feels a long way off as I eye the dusty side street where the stadium entrance lies.

Liverpool is playing Nacional this weekday afternoon, a big game for Liverpool.  Nacional is also based in Montevideo, like the majority of teams in the league, and is one of the twin giants of Uruguayan league.  Here is how Galeano, a Uruguayan himself, sums up the situation in Soccer in Sun and Shadow:

ANormally we Uruguayans belong to Nacional or Penarol from the day we are born.  People say, for example, >I=m a Penarol,= or >I=m a Nacional.=  That=s the way it=s been since the beginning of the century.@ 

In other words, it=s almost like a South American version of the Old Firm, minus the poison of religious difference.  Nacional has won nearly 40 league titles over the decades and has also won the Copa Libertadores three times to reign as champions of the whole of South America.  When I enter the Belvedere B after paying the equivalent of $2.50 for my ticket B I find myself surrounded by Nacional supporters.  It must be odd when most of your road games don=t involve leaving town.  Does that make a fan=s life easier B since you can catch more of the games B and more interesting?  Or does a lack of regional diversity sap some of the flavor?

The Estadio Belvedere is a primitive affair, with about ten rows of seating circling the field and bare concrete everywhere.  I=m behind one goal with the Nacional ultras, a friendly lot, where it is just terracing, no seats.  We=re all standing anyway.  Along the sides of the stadium there are benches for the fans.  The crowd, numbering in the several hundreds, looks to be split about 50-50 in loyalties.  I suppose that=s common when the big boys visit.  A tall chain-link fence separates us from the field.

It is a pleasant afternoon B in the 60s and cloudy, with the sun showing its face later in the game.  All around me are teenagers in Nacional jerseys.  They appear to be in heaven.  I can imagine how their day must have gone B head over to the game after school, meet up with your buddies and, judging from the aroma, smoke a little weed.  There are groups of younger boys here and there as well.  I also see a fair number of middle-aged men in suits in the sitting area, who must have snuck out of the office for the afternoon.  AI have a meeting,@ I can imagine them saying on the way out the door.

Despite their name, Liverpool are dressed like Inter Milan, in blue and black-striped jerseys.  Nacional are in white shirts and blue shorts with some red touches.  Their nickname is the ATricolores@ B or three colors B and from the banners in the ultra section you would think we were rooting for France.

There is no scoreboard, no program and barely any public address system.  A wave of firecrackers signal the approach of kick-off as much as anything else does.  There is a steady beat from a group of drummers in our section.  It is early in the season but Nacional can move from second to first with a victory.  Many members of the Uruguayan national team B i.e. players I might recognize B play in Europe, looking for the bigger paycheck and brighter limelight.  I have heard of one Nacional player, Sebastian Abreu, a tall long-haired forward known as AEl Loco@ who has had some spells abroad.  The newspapers say that Uruguay=s national team coach will be at the game to scout Nacional=s goalie and a defender.  While Liverpool is solidly mid-table there is no indication their players are being similarly assessed.

The game starts.  The Nacional ultras are singing boastful songs.  When Liverpool players commit fouls on Nacional players the ultras seem to shift gears to insults related to the mothers of players involved for a time before going back to boasting.  The atmosphere is a playful one, however, perhaps because Liverpool is not a real rival to Nacional. 

Nacional strikes first about 15 minutes in.  A long cross from the right finds El Loco at the far post and he heads it in.  It=s only another 15 minutes before they make it 2-0 on a drive by El Loco=s partner at forward, Alexander Medina.  Liverpool looks decent on the ball and get some attacks, even a few shots.  Nacional seems to be overwhelming them with speed.  They attack more quickly, decisively and are much more dangerous when it comes to finishing.  Gonzalo Castro is especially solid in midfield, always winning the ball, always passing it somewhere useful, often threatening.  Abreu looks good as well, flicking the ball about on the attack.

It is 2-0 at the half.  The ultras relax, mostly sitting down for the break.  Ice cream and nuts vendors circulate, doing some business.  I make halting small talk with nearby teenagers.  They seem unsurprised to have a gringo hanging out watching their team.  I can=t tell if this is teenage nonchalance or stoned indifference.  They are pleased by the team=s performance, they tell me.

At half-time, the mate comes out.  One potential downside of Uruguay as a hideout would be developing a mate addiction like so many of the locals.  Mate is a kind of tea and drinking it involves a complicated apparatus.  There is the ceramic mug, which is filled with leaves, and the curved straw and the ever-present thermos of hot water.  You see people lugging their gear all around Montevideo, thermos in the crook of the arm, often pausing for a sip.  Our coffee addicts just carry the omnipresent Starbucks cup B these Uruguayans need more equipment for their tea.  If some entrepreneur could figure out an all in one contraption to make mate more portable he or she would be rich.  Then again, maybe the Uruguayans are now too attached to their gear, with ornamental mugs and straws available at sidewalk stands throughout downtown.  Perhaps they would never give it up now.

The second half is more of the same, with Nacional firmly in charge.  About minute 60, Castro comes charging down the left side in attack for Nacional.  He=s bearing down directly at us.  He gets into the box and rips a shot across into the far side of the goal.  3-0!  Castro celebrates right in front of us and I am almost trampled by the wave of happy fans rushing to the fence in front of him. 

As if the game weren=t already effectively decided, a player on Liverpool quickly picks up a red card.  The pace of the game relaxes a fraction.  About minute 70, Nacional subs out Abreu.  The bench for the substitutes is, oddly, on the opposite side of the field from the coaches and the fourth official.  So after he trots off the field Abreu makes a procession out of the slow walk around the outside of the field to the bench, giving out high-fives to fans all along the way.  The ultras are singing the familiar Aole@ song but tacking on ALo-co!  Lo-co!@ as the ending refrain.

Around minute 82 Aguiar of Liverpool scores on a sweet bending free kick to give the home team a consolation goal.  But right near the end there=s an obvious handball in the Liverpool box and the referee gives the penalty.  It=s duly converted by Gustavo Mendez for the decisive 4-1 Nacional victory.  The ultras depart cheerfully and I go in search of another cab.


One Response to “Nacional Hero”

  1. […] Koozar Escribio un articulo buenisimo hoyAqui hay un pedazo del articuloHere is how Galeano, a Uruguayan himself, sums up the situation in Soccer in Sun and Shadow: ANormally we Uruguayans belong to Nacional or Penarol from the day we are born. People say, for example, >I=ma Penarol,= or >I=ma Nacional. … Lea el resto de este fabuloso articulo here Posted in Uncategorized Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL. […]

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