In Chilean fútbol, there are two big teams that stand out from the rest with their massive fan bases and a rivalry to match. Often known as the ‘people’s team’, Colo Colo is the country’s most popular and polarising club; you either love it or you love to hate it. A bit like Collingwood in the AFL. Its uniform is even black and white. The second biggest team is La Universidad de Chile which plays in a striking blue strip. La U, as its known, has nothing in common with Collingwood and it also happens to be Leonel’s team.
The Saturday after Easter, the two teams were set to play each other in what promised to be an epic ‘superclásico’ game at Chile’s National Stadium. In one sense Colo Colo seemed to have the upper hand. The people’s team has enjoyed more success when the two teams have gone head to head in the past and the last time La U managed to score a win against their archrivals was back in 2008. On the other hand, the people’s team has played poorly this year while La U has found good form, alternating between second and third place on the table for most of the season. But in a superclásico, passion, hunger and the odd piece of luck are just as important as form.
There’s a long history of toughly contested matches between La U and Colo Colo and hard fought brawls among the diehard supporters in the stands. This ugly side of the beautiful game has proved too much for many fans who have stopped attending the big matches to avoid the violence. In the lead up to the April 30 clash, the Chilean Government devised a plan to curb this unfortunate trend. For the first time in Chilean football history, they would limit the number of tickets for fans of the visiting Colo Colo team to just 3,000. The remaining 50,000 seats would only be sold to people who could prove they were loyal supporters of La U by producing a team jersey or ticket stubs from past matches. Dubbed ‘Plan Estadio Seguro’, the experiment in crowd control only added to the sense of anticipation around the match. Thankfully I had Leo and he had his La U jersey.
On the day of the match, we found a park half a dozen blocks from the stadium and started heading in the direction of the noise. It was half an hour before the match was going to start but the chanting was already in full swing. As we drew closer, the volume increased and the pulsating words became more audible; two blocks away, it sounded as if we were already inside the stadium.
Lining the main street to the north of the stadium were an assortment of street vendors peddling counterfeit flags, scarves and jerseys. On the road, the dark green vans of the riot police roamed back and forth like restless street dogs, itching for a fight. At the entrance to the stadium there were dozens more riot police on foot.
After showing our tickets and squeezing through the impossibly narrow turnstiles, we were inside. But before we could climb into the stands, we had to pass another checkpoint with more police and officials. Anyone with a bag had to pass it through an airport-style X-ray machine.
As I approached the queue leading to the second barrier, a voice behind me called out, “Permiso” (Excuse me). I barely had time to step aside before fourteen riot police in two neat rows brushed past me. Dressed in dark green helmets and flak jackets and holding large plastic shields, they looked more like soldiers than police officers. It was a stark reminder of the violence that has been known to surround these games.
By the time we got into the ground, it was just 10 minutes before kick off. The bowl shaped stadium was decked out in blue, except for a small section of black and white fans cordoned off by high fences with spikes. We climbed up into the sea of blue, dodging excited fans while trying not to slip on the old concrete stairs that were dripping with spilled Coke. Alcohol was banned inside the stadium but judging by the smell in the air, nobody was too fussed about marijuana. All of the fans were on their feet, waving jerseys in the air or slapping each other on the back as they chanted, wolf-whistled and jeered at the other team’s supporters. Although they were outnumbered, the Colo Colinos made a lot of noise. Led by two larger-than-bass drums that maintained a constant beat throughout the match, they did their best to ensure that had an impact. Most of the chants from both teams were difficult to understand and those that I could follow don’t bear repeating here.
La U kicked off and even though the boys in blue were able to dominate possession throughout the first half, their game kept falling apart when they pushed forward. Colo Colo was playing with a defensive structure and they easily thwarted most of La U’s attacking plays. Although the people’s team had few opportunities to approach La U’s goal, they managed to produce the best chances after taking the defense by surprise on a couple of occasions. The game was error-ridden and neither team was able to impress.
At half time, the score was locked at nil-all and despite all the build up, the game was rather dull. The fans on the other hand had been giving their all, jumping, chanting and hurling abuse for the entire 45 minutes. When the players left the pitch, we sat down for the first time and finally had a rest.
The second half began in much the same style as the first but now La U seemed to be making more errors. Forced to call the shots by Colo Colo’s defensive game plan, they pursued awkward opportunities listlessly. The game continued in this way until a Colo Colo midfielder headed in an innocuous corner, putting the visitors up one-nil. Encouraged by their good fortune, the black and white fans erupted into a series of joyful but abusive chants, making more noise than 3,000 people should be able to.
With only 25 minutes on the clock, La U found a new sense of urgency but in the desperation they continued to make costly mistakes. Their long balls were too long and their short passes near the goal were easily intercepted. The frustration flowed up into the stands and the La U fans began hurling cheap insults at their enemies.
But at the 75 minute mark, the coach made a key substitution and the mood changed. When Diego Rivarola stepped onto the pitch, a new chant broke out around the stadium and the fans became animated with a new sense of hope. A crowd favourite and big game specialist, Rivorola is a 34-year-old veteran who spends the majority of most games sitting on the bench, waiting until the end of the match to come on and work his magic. The kind of magic that was needed now.
His presence on the ground had an immediate impact on his teammates and once again they pushed forward, this time drawing a free kick five metres outside the penalty box. The La U fans stood as one, waving their fingers in the air, willing the bowl through. The player taking the kick stuck the ball sweetly and it arced through the air past the motionless keeper, only to miss by centimetres to the far side. The collective sigh was audible. A couple of minutes later the referee blew his whistle again, giving La U another chance in almost exactly the same spot as before. The Colo Colo keeper didn’t move this time either but he didn’t have to. The ball was aimed straight athim and he caught it cleanly in front of his face.
But La U refused to give up. In what seemed like no time at all, they were attacking again. They surged toward goal and were on the point of threatening the Colo Colo keeper one more time when a blue player was tripped and went to ground. PENALTY! The La U fans let out a roar of relief and began waving their fingers in the air again, willing the ball through once more. As the striker moved in to take the kick, the ground fell silent for the first time all match. Then as the ball rocketed into the left corner of the net the volume rose once again as 50,000 fans expressed their joy. In the 84th minute they had equalised.
Buoyed by their success, the boys in blue began to play with a new sense of optimism. With one minute left on the clock they pushed forward down the right wing. Rivarola sprinted down the middle of the ground and reached the penalty area just in time to connect his head with a soaring cross from the sideline, sending the ball into the back of the net.
This time the crowd went ballistic. RIVAROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLA! GOOOOOOOOOOOOL! The La U fans hugged, high fived and slapped each other on the back. They were in front. Minutes later, the final whistle blew and it was over. Colo Colo had finally been defeated. Already on their feet, the La U fans now started to jump in unison, making it appear as if the whole stadium was moving. For 20 minutes they sang and chanted, taking every opportunity to remind the 3,000 faithful Colo Colo fans who had won. It was a fairytale comeback that they and I would never forget.
When the singing finally stopped we made our exit. I walked out into the street with a hoarse throat, ringing ears and a new passion.
Soy de abajo.