Well, it’s going to be a long hot summer. Here in Jamaica, the first tropical storm of the season, with the sweet, down-home name of Arlene, is circling around Mexico. Jamaicans in social media (and there are 600,000 of us on Facebook alone) cry plaintively, “This heat!!!” (One exclamation mark is never enough in social media-dom).
And meanwhile, some of our western hemispheric neighbors are into…rioting. And specifically, sports riots (sporting riots?). It started with the Vancouverians (no, that can’t be right, hold on a minute…I don’t know what the natives of that fair city are called but will try to find out…Vanconians, perhaps?) Yes, our “neighbors to the north” became incensed at the defeat of their ice hockey team, the Vancouver Canucks.
OK, stop right there. What in the blazes is a Canuck? It sounds like an odd little creature – somewhat chipmunkish, perhaps – that lives up there in the Rockies and eats pine cones. But no – in fact a Canuck is simply…a Canadian. Its etymology is unclear – a bit of German here, a bit of Dutch there, who knows. Anyway, it has now been established that the Canucks are Canadians. Duh, as they say. And they play ice hockey like demons.
Now, I don’t understand the rules of ice hockey, but it was clear that the Canucks were getting the proverbial whupping in that last game, at the hands of (gasp) Americans. Battling Bostonians, no less, who can exhibit just as much testosterone-laden aggression as any Vancouveronian/Canuck. As usual, the incredibly high tempo game gradually degenerated into regular pushing and shoving sessions on the plastic margins of the ice rink, during which at least one player got a bloody nose. It all ended in defeat and despair for the hapless Canucks. And defeated, not by fellow-Canucks (remember, Canuck = Canadian), but by Americans (or whatever their probably highly derogatory word for Americans is).
Yes, among sports fans things get visceral. Name-calling is but a small part of it. In any case, the humiliated fans decided the only thing to do was to “get on bad,” to use a charming Trinidadian phrase. And so they did, bringing shame and disgrace on the city of Vancouver. “We should not be smug,” reflected one writer in the “Vancouver Observer,” adding rather pompously, “civilization is a precious and fragile thing.” Indeed. And sports fans, let’s face it, quite often border on the uncivilized. One sees plenty of evidence of that scary dark side of human nature, whether it’s racism, ultra-nationalism or just sheer mindless violence (when I was growing up in London, Chelsea fans were to be feared and respected. They were a mob of mindless hooligans, who specialized in smashing up trains).
But hey, sports is supposed to be fun! And for some Vancouverites (ah, that sounds better) it was, apparently. They posed in their Canucks paraphernalia in front of burning cars. Cheerful peace signs were flashed in front of smashed plate glass windows. The rioters did not have the grim look of hardcore anarchists. They were enjoying themselves.
I thought I understood the Canadians. I always think of them as a milder version of Americans, but now I realize they can be pretty edgy too. Once, while traveling alone on a bumpy plane journey, the turbulence made me feel so sick that a kind Canadian sitting next to me gave me some rather disgusting herbal chewing gum that was supposed to settle my stomach. That’s the kind of thing I expect Canadians to do. Not this… In the middle of a serious riot.
I wonder what the hockey players thought – the Canucks and the victorious Bruins (what is a Bruin, by the way? Further investigation needed).
Now, let’s move much further south, to some other battling denizens of the western hemisphere. Ah, here we are… Argentina.
The River Plate (Rio de la Plata) is a large and harmless river that happens to flow along the border between Ecuador and Argentina, lapping at the edges of their respective capital cities, Montevideo and Buenos Aires. It’s actually a huge estuary, brown with sediment; the fresh river water on top, heavy salt water underneath. And there was a battle there, in World War II, in which a German ship ended up out of sorts in the port of Montevideo.
It’s also, of course, the name of the famed Argentine football club. For the first time in its 110-year history, Club Atletic River Plate has been relegated to the Nacional B division. Fans of its huge rivals, the Boca Juniors, must be laughing cruelly (the BJ’s are where the ebullient Diego Maradona was virtually born and raised). Such are sports fans.
Now let’s get this straight. The mighty River Plate football club has towered over most of its competitors for over a century. Its huge stadium, nicknamed “El Monumental,” was built in 1938 and is the largest in Argentina, holding over 76,000 including the standing-only areas. When megastars are in town, they play there; Michael Jackson, Madonna, AC/DC and earlier this year, the inane Miley Cyrus played sold-out concerts. Yikes.
River Plate has won the national league, the Apertura, countless times, and was named Best Argentine Team of the 20th Century in a FIFA-sponsored poll. In the 1940s, during a particularly splendid patch, the team was called “La Maquina” (The Machine). But crisis was looming lurid on the horizon, like an approaching thunderstorm. The club’s president, Jose Maria Aguilar, left the club with debts bursting out all over. The writing was on the wall.
I am using this dramatic language advisedly, because there is nothing quite like the drama of Argentine football. The huge swelling masses of fans, walled off against each other, sway against the tall chain link fences topped with razor wire that pen them in. The Petchary thinks she would not like to be in the middle of that mass of humanity. Within minutes of a game, the pitch is littered with what look like scraps of toilet tissue and other debris, almost as if a bomb has landed in an office building and papers are scattered everywhere. And the game itself is no-holds-barred. Unlike their rather effete footballing neighbors Brazil, they don’t worry too much about fancy footwork or cute hairstyles. The main thing is to get the ball in the back of the net, so they can go racing about tugging at each other’s shirts, kissing and hugging and so that their fans can do likewise.
Now, the Petchary has more sympathy with the mortified, devastated River Plate fans than with the young, exhibitionist Vancouveronians. After all, their team was relegated for the first time ever. And the “Gallinas” – chickens, as fans of rival clubs call them – took the streets. Hell hath no fury like a chicken scorned.
Dennis Brown had a song called “Love and Hate.” It’s something like that, no half-hearted emotions here. In the case of the River Plate riots, mostly grief and hate, starting with pitch invasions when things took a turn for the worse, and death threats against the referee, who had a pretty nervy half-time break. The threats were allegedly made by one of River Plate’s gangs (yes, gangs) called Los Borrachos del Tablon (the Drunks in the Stands). Then thousands of fans who hadn’t got tickets charged the stadium, throwing lumps of rubble at the police who responded with tear gas. 89 people were injured but miraculously, no dead chickens.
- Now the Copa America, the final of which is to be played in El Monumental, is on the horizon. But peace will be restored by then. That phoney football love and harmony will flow across South America as Argentina host the Copa. After all, it is club football that inspires the deepest love/hate/passion/fury/delirium – not national teams.
- Just a footnote: the Petchary is no way condoning violence and criminality in this blog post. It’s just that she understands the agony and the ecstasy of club football (there she goes again with that melodramatic language). It is sad to see grown men cry and tear at their chests in wild grief.
- No doubt about it, River Plate and its fans will just have to suck salt from a wooden spoon (or the Argentine equivalent) throughout the upcoming season, and make sure they win the second division. And there will be no El Classico – the hyped-up annual game between them and super monster rivals Boca Juniors, either.
- What further dramas will unfold, one asks? Well, the summer is young, but getting hotter. Where will the fun and games break out next? When and where is the next G-20 or IMF meeting? That’s always good for a bit of action. Somehow I prefer sports fans, though.
- They’ve got more “oomph.” And sports is more interesting than politics.
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