The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Where the World Cup Began (Centanario/Penarol)

Posted by steigs on August 22, 2008

Wandering chef Anthony Bourdain recently visited Uruguay on his “No Reservations” show.  I was amused to see that Montevideo appeared to charm the jaded New Yorker as much as it did me.  (Love the cafes in the old port market!)  Which reminded me that I hadn’t posted about the other soccer-related trip I made while down there, an outing to see Penarol, the other giant of Uruguayan (and South American) futbol — as well as the storied Centenario stadium, host to the 1930 World Cup final. 

The section of the stands directly behind the goal is the only really crowded one, busy with drummers and standing teenagers, the type who sing throughout the game.  They stretch black and gold banners from the bottom of the stands all the way to the electronic scoreboard at the top.  I settle in close by, on a hard plastic seat.  There are no assigned seats — you just buy a ticket for the section in general.  Going to a soccer game in Latin America is generally a walk-up affair, not something to buy a ticket for weeks in advance.  It is more like going to the movies than a play or concert.  This is one of the cultural issues MLS struggles with as it tries to persuade the Latino part of its fan base to buy season tickets, not merely show up on the day of the game when the mood hits them.

 

For more, read on after the jump!

 

 

Montevideo — September 2004

Time to see Uruguay’s other major team, Penarol, nearly 50 times the winner of the league championship — as well as five times the champions of Latin America and three times “world champion.”  Penarol peaked back in the 1960s, including back-to-back Copa Libertadores victories in 1960 and 1961.  The game is at Centenario Stadium, at the end of the long Avenida 16 de July on the edge of Montevideo’s downtown.  On my way I cross broad avenues and walk through large parks.  Kids are playing their own freestyle match on the dirt fields.

 

Centenario Stadium is huge and historic.  It opened in 1930 for the very first World Cup and was the biggest in South America at the time.  You may think it odd that Uruguay hosted the initial five billion person party.  Why not the English or the Italians or even the Brazilians?

 

The main reason the World Cup began in Montevideo was that the Uruguayans were, at the time, the world champions.  Uruguay won the gold medal for soccer at both the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, the closest thing to a world championship before the advent of the World Cup.  They would go on to win the 1930 World Cup as well, cementing a reputation as the first international superpower of the sport.  (In fact, they went through those three tourneys undefeated.)

 

This run was by no means a fluke.  Uruguay also won the World Cup in 1950 and as late as 1970 reached the semi-finals.  Uruguay also won the initial Copa America, the South American championship, in 1916 and have won it thirteen more times since.  Uruguay still regularly qualifies for the World Cup as well.  Only three nations — Brazil, Germany and Italy — have won more World Cups than little Uruguay and the Uruguayans have won more than the English, Dutch and Spanish combined.

 


We see South American soccer today as being mostly about Brazil and Argentina.  The first time both of those countries reached a World Cup final they lost…to Uruguay.  I described the 1950 victory over Brazil earlier.  Here’s Galeano in Soccer in Sun and Shadow on the victory in 1930:

 

There wasn’t room for a pin in the stands when Uruguay and Argentina faced each other in the final.  The stadium is a sea of felt hats and canopies over cameras with tripods…Uruguay, losing 2-1 at half-time, ended up winning 4-2 and was crowned champion…Afterwards, in Buenos Aires, a crowd stormed the Uruguayan consulate.”

 

Soccer — inspiring hooligans for a century!

 

This history explains why the Centenario Stadium has an “Olympic” stand and an “Amsterdam” tribune (for the 1928 Olympics) as well as plaques honoring their various world champions.  A reminder that, whatever the situation today, the great-grandfathers of the players tonight were the best in the world. 

 

The game tonight is a run of the mill league match — mighty Penarol versus Defensor Sporting, yet another Montevideo side but one off to a bright start this season.  The authorities are, rightly, not expecting a big crowd and the whole section behind one goal is closed.  Only a handful of vendors lurk outside, offering Penarol gear and snacks, and it’s grown rather dark.  So I buy a ticket to join the Penarol ultras to sit behind the goal for…$1.50.  These South American ticket prices leave plenty of room in the budget for steak dinners, that’s for certain.

 

The birthplace of the World Cup is a vast bowl stadium, two levels all around.  A slim art deco needle rises high above midfield on one side, a large apartment building looming behind it.  A full moon hangs low in the night sky, just over the stadium rim, as if wanting to watch the action with us.  There is a scattering of fans in the stands along the sidelines, with the exception of a few crowded sections of Defensor Sporting ultras.  The most inhabited sector is actually the one I am in, filled with the Penarol ultras and others opting to be near them.  A midweek evening game, against a blah opponent that is also on television is not a big draw, especially when Penarol is off to a sluggish start this season with a series of draws.  I estimate an attendance of 10-12,000.

 

Penarol’s colors are black and gold, giving a Pittsburgh Steelers air to their fans.  I see a lot of Penarol flags, which actually look somewhat like our stars and stripes dyed black and gold.  It was Penarol’s 113th birthday yesterday and there was a parade in Montevideo.  In classic fashion, the team grew out of a cricket club for railway workers late in the 19th century.  The name Penarol derives from a neighborhood within Montevideo.

 


The section of the stands directly behind the goal is the only really crowded one, busy with drummers and standing teenagers, the type who sing throughout the game.  They stretch black and gold banners from the bottom of the stands all the way to the electronic scoreboard at the top.  I settle in close by, on a hard plastic seat.  There are no assigned seats — you just buy a ticket for the section in general.  Going to a soccer game in Latin America is generally a walk-up affair, not something to buy a ticket for weeks in advance.  It is more like going to the movies than a play or concert.  This is one of the cultural issues MLS struggles with as it tries to persuade the Latino part of its fan base to buy season tickets, not merely show up on the day of the game when the mood hits them.

 

The spring night has grown chilly.  I see some replica jerseys but jackets with Penarol scarves are more common.  It feels like my old high school Friday night football games.  It is a very mixed crowd with families and older men sprinkled through the Penarol section once you get away from the central belt of young ultras.  I see a lot of black and yellow knit hats on fans which has the effect of making them looking rather like bees.  Penarol banners are everywhere, pledging devotion or representing a home town or neighborhood.  Ads ripple by on the electronic scoreboard, including one for a trip to the upcoming World Cup qualifier against Argentina in Buenos Aires.

 

Firecrackers greet the teams.  Penarol are in black with gold stripes.  Defensor Sporting wear violet jerseys.  The field, I see, is protected with a twenty foot-high chain-link fence and a shallow moat.  No pitch invasions happening here.  Heck, you could probably stick the whole Estadio Belvedere down there and not reach the fence.

 

The game starts off even, encouraging the Defensor ultras, far off to our right, to do a few cheers.  There’s an attacking intent on both sides and the ball moves about quickly.  I am encouraged — this could be good.

 

Defensor scores first, about minute 11.  The ball is bouncing around the Penarol penalty area until it rolls near Pereyra, close to the top of the box, who scores on a powerful shot.  1-0, Defensor Sporting.  The Defensor ultras get to do the “ole” song for awhile.  Right afterwards, a potential handball in the Defensor box goes uncalled and the Penarol ultras become irritated, whistling at the referee and shouting insults about his mother.  You may be mad at your team but it is always easier to take out your frustrations on the referee.

 

Vendors are circling in the stands.  There is a guy selling big wooden whistles.  He keeps tooting on one to show them off, making it sound as if there is a small train toiling around the stadium.  Others offer beer and candy.  The coffee salesmen appear to be doing a better business and a lot of people break out the mate.  The temperature is down to the 40s.  The ultras near me are singing much of the time.  It sounds like some sort of Spanish campfire sing-along.

 

Penarol, also nicknamed the “manya,” come close to scoring about minute 30.  The ball bounces away after striking the crossbar, following a nifty give-and-go move.  But Defensor comes right back and only an impressive save by the Penarol keeper, Elduayen, prevents a goal.  The Manya Nation is getting frustrated with the team=s sloppy play.  Defensor Sporting looks quick and perhaps more aggressive than Penarol expected.  Maybe it is no accident that they are ahead of Penarol in the standings.

 

Defensor takes a 2-0 lead in minute 42.  A deep cross into the box causes confusion and Diego De Souza gets to it and calmly drills it in.  Down at the other end, a Penarol player attempts a bicycle kick and fails miserably.  The Penarol fans have had enough.  They whistle their team off the field at the half. 

 


I head for the concession stand, regretting for once that I don’t drink coffee.  I have to duck underneath an immense Penarol banner to get to the stand, as if it is a hidden cave.  I pick up a beer and a Hamlet (?!) chocolate bar and then talk to some of the Penarol ultras, teenagers wearing their team flags as capes.  Jorge says the manager is bad and the players are lazy.  Oh, and the management should sign better players too.  His friend agrees.  They’re resigned to a bad season.  But maybe, they say with some hope, Nacional will lose their better players to Europe, bringing them down to Penarol’s level.  Such are the wistful hopes of the fans of this former power.

 

Matters don’t change much in the second half.  Penarol does attack.  Five minutes into the half there=s a nice cross, a shot and…it’s off the bar.  The rebound falls out of the reach of the attackers.  The ultras try singing about heart and being a champion.  Still, it is exasperating rooting for Penarol in this game.  The neat backheel pass…right to the opposition.  The ferocious 30 yard sprint with the ball…and the cross right to their goalie.  The good defensive play to deflect a pass…which falls right to another attacker. 

 

In minute 63, Penarol win a penalty off a clear late tackle in the box.  Hope for the Manya!  Forward Carlos Bueno steps up to take it and…the Defensor goalie, Juan Castillo, dives well to his left to save it.  D’oh!  After that false dawn, the Penarol ultras finally start to wind down.  You can only will your team on for so long when they don’t come through for you.  In the distance we can hear the Defensor fans singing but there’s only a sporadic response.

 

Up 2-0, Defensor puts the emphasis more on, well, defense.  They live up to their name, fending off Penarol repeatedly.  They give way late, in minute 84, when Bueno scores for Penarol as a partial make-up for blowing the penalty.  A burst of cheers and singing, a big finishing kick from the ultras.  A flurry of Penarol attacks follows but results in little else.  It ends 2-1, Defensor.  Mighty Penarol is clearly out of sorts. 

 

But it is early in the season.  Maybe the Manya will get their act together.  Or maybe Nacional will sell their stars.  In the meantime, where’s the mate?  It’s cold at night here in Montevideo in the spring.  We depart the Centenario, rich with history, and return to the sleepy streets of the capital.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: