La U: the cause of my craziness.

Walking across the bridge, I pulled the slip of paper out of my pocket. There was an address scrawled across the crumpled piece of paper: Diagonal Cervantes 688. I was on a mission. My destination: the Feria Ticket office, just across the other side of the brown trickle of water, known as the Mapocho River. My objective: to purchase two tickets to the second leg of the Copa Sudamericana final due to take place the following week at the Estadio Nacional.

Following a remarkable run of good form and even better fortune, my Chilean team, La Universidad de Chile, had qualified for the decider of the South American club championship. And after witnessing them firsthand earlier in the year, I was keen to be there again when they battled it out against Ecuadorian champions, Liga de Quito. The only problem was, I wasn’t the only one. La U is a popular team and this was shaping up to be one of its biggest games in years.

I glanced down at my watch as I hurried along. 9:05. I still had almost an hour before the tickets officially went on sale but I wasn’t sure if that would be enough to guarantee success. In the car on the way to the metro station half an hour earlier, the impossibly cheerful radio announcers mentioned that fans had been lining up outside ticket offices for hours. I tried not to think about it.

On reaching the other side of the river, I scanned the street signs, searching for Diagonal Cervantes. But when I found it, I stopped in my tracks. A couple of blocks away, a crowd of blue hats and jerseys had formed and was snaking its way along the footpath. It didn’t look very promising.

As I drew closer, I realised the situation was worse than it had appeared at first. The queue had looped all the way around the small city block. It was almost impossible to see where it ended. I turned down a side street and walked along to the next corner. There were dozens of people lined up but there was no end to the queue in sight. I could barely tell which way it was heading.

“Excuse me, I said to one of the fans. “Do you know where the end of the line is?”

“That way,” he said, pointing over his shoulder in the direction I had come from.

I headed back along the side street, turned the corner and traced the line along Diagonal Cervantes until I finally found its end, about 10m back from the ticket store. The black, shutter doors seemed to be within reach but Separating me from them were hundreds of eager fans and an entire city block. So close, yet so far away. I prepared myself for a long wait.

The people clustered at the front of the line bore evidence of their early start. Some had mattresses while others were propping up their heads with pillows. All of them yawned as they chatted idly among themselves, trying to stave off the boredom that accompanied them throughout the night. And all of them were decked out in the blue paraphernalia of La U. Dressed in my business shirt and neat slacks, I stood out.

On the other side of the street stood two police officers, dressed in the standard green Carabineros uniform. Standing rigidly, side by side, they didn’t talk. They too looked bored.

Around 9:25, one of the fans near the head of the queue pulled out a home-made fire cracker and, holding it aloft for everyone to see, lit it. There was a hush as everyone waited. Pop…pop, pop pop.

The sound echoed in the narrow street like gun shots.

And then the section of the queue closest to the ticket office erupted into a frenzy of jumping, whistling and chanting.

C.H.I. Chi L.E. Le
Chi, Chi Chi, le, le, le

Universidad de Chile,

¡Y dale, y dale, y dale La U y dale!

Out came another home-made fire cracker and the same process repeated, only this time, the fans started pushing forward in the queue. Taking advantage of the noise and the commotion, they barged ahead, treading on each other as they went. Some of them shouted out in pain while others started banging loudly on the metal shutters outside the ticket office. The people near me, at the end of the line, began to mutter.

This is getting out of control.”

“Yeah, this always happens. Why can’t they just wait like the rest of us?”

Across the road, the police officers maintained their stiff stance. One of them ran his fingers along the large, black baton that hung limply from his waist but he didn’t remove it from its holder. The stern expression on his face suggested he wanted to. But he couldn’t. He was grossly outnumbered and he knew it. Two officers with batons were no match for the dozens of screaming and clamouring fans who had taken over the footpath. As the mayhem continued, the police watched on.

BANG!

With a heavy slam, the roller door sprang open and a cheer broke out. Then, without any warning, there was a rush for the door. An entire section of the line in front of me simply evaporated and around 50 people charged towards the opening, jumping ahead of hundreds of waiting fans. No-one had said anything and there was no obvious signal; they had just moved. It was completely spontaneous…and a quite scary.

The police held their ground.

A man who was standing not far from me, grumbled at them: “What are you going to do about that?”

He didn’t get a reply.

Shrugging their shoulders, the people lined up in front of me shuffled up the road, filling the space that had been vacated by the charging fans. With no other option, I followed. Although the queue in front of us was now shorter, there were still just as many people ahead of us. And there was still half an hour until the ticket office was due to open. Adding to the discomfort, our new position in the queue had almost no shade and the harsh Santiago sun was beating down on us. Down the road, the die-hard fans kept chanting.

C.H.I. Chi L.E. le…

During the chaos, the two police on duty must have called for back up because around 9:40, four officers from the dog squad, accompanied by three pure bred German Shepherds and one stunted German Shepherd-cross appeared on the scene. Without saying a word, they filed past us towards the unruly group at the front of the line. When they got closer, the barking began and the chanting grew quieter. It was clear that the police dogs were well trained. Working together, they let out a string of continuous barks, maintaining a constant rhythm in a calm but threatening tone..

Woof. Woof, woof. Woof. Woof, woof.

Not long afterwards, the dog squad was joined by half a dozen riot police, decked out in the familiar khaki-green helmets and body armour, along with four police officers on horseback. Wasting no time, the mounted officers shuffled towards the head of the queue where they attempted to clear out the area in front of the ticket office, using their giant horses as battering rams. Despite the resistance, it only took them about five minutes to achieve their goal. But not all the fans were happy, and a few of them started to voice their discontent. Picking up the signal, the dogs began took their barking to a new level of intensity.

WOOF. WOOF, WOOF. WOOF. WOOF, WOOF.

The noise of the fans soon subsided, the dogs returned to their routine bark and the rest of us kept waiting. And then, in the relative calm, a new noise began to blend with the barking quartet: a whistle. One of the riot police officers had positioned himself by the edge of the road where he was eagerly directing the traffic around the tail of the queue, like an overly keen Phys. Ed. teacher in a ninja turtle costume. It was an odd site and an even stranger sound.

Woof. Whistle. Woof, woof. Whistle.

A couple of minutes after 10 o’clock, the ticket office finally opened its doors and, despite the heavy police presence, the fans at the head of the queue tried to push their way inside. The dogs lifted their barking intensity, the mounted police, pushed their horses firmly into the crowd and the ninja turtle officer blew his whistle with extra force. It was an utter mess.

WOOF. WHISTLE. WOOF, WOOF. WHISTLE.

Then one of the dogs got particularly excited, releasing a quick volley of extra-loud barks, and a human voice cried out in pain.

“Aaaaaaaaaah. It bit me!”

We all looked up. A fan who had been ejected from the line, was clutching at his leg, just metres away from the smallest of the four dogs. It was standing up on its hind legs, a menacing snarl spread across its face. The officer holding the dog’s leash said nothing but her tense body language spoke volumes.

“Clear off or it will do it again!”

Taking, her unspoken advice, the bitten fan slunk away and the rest of the crowd calmed down, although there was still quite a bit of pushing and shoving going on at the head of the queue.

The rest of us went on waiting. By now the sun was higher and hotter and even though the ticket sales had started, the line wasn’t moving. With nothing else to do, I tried to tune in to the conversations around me.

Directly in front of me, a young guy in a La U jersey was listening patiently as a middle aged gent talked at great length about Chilean history. The speaker had a large belly hidden beneath a pink shirt and a green tie, which quivered as he spoke. Occasionally the young listener would say a few words but most of the time, he simply nodded, as if he had been hypnotised by the quivering belly. The one-sided conversation was dominated by wars with Peru and the masterful strategies of the English generals who came to the aid of the fledgling Chilean nation. With nothing better to do, I listened in.

“The English knew more about war than anyone else in those days…the trained the Chilean navy and it was the most effective section of our entire defence force…”

“I see,” said the young lad, nodding his head wisely.

“And what’s more…” the big-bellied man continued.

Around 10:20, the line moved forwards 10 metres. There was a small cheer.

The middle aged man was still speaking. He had turned his attention to World War II and now it was the Japanese, not the English, who were the exemplars of modern warfare.

“They were the only Asian nation never to be colonised, you know?” he said.

The young lad started to nod again but I butted in.

“No they weren’t. Thailand wasn’t either. In fact, they still have their king…” I spluttered in Spanish.

“Ah, yes. Thailand. Japan and Thailand,” said the big-bellied man. Now he was nodding and I was officially involved in the conversation. I listened to more stories about the Japanese, interrupting occasionally with anecdotes about the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea and the prisoner of war camp at Changi.

“You know Darwin, a city in the north of Australia was bombed by the Japanese…and some of their submarines made it into Sydney Harbour…”

The sun kept climbing and the young lad kept nodding. Twenty minutes later we rounded the first of the four corners that separated us from the ticket office. It was taking a long time.

I started to eavesdrop on the conversation behind me.

“…it will be at least another hour, I reckon,” a man in dark sunglasses said to his friend.

“Another hour?” I butted in again.

“Yeah, until we get to the shade,” he said with a laugh, pointing to an awning about 50m down the road. “It’ll be at least three more hours before we get to the ticket office.”

I laughed uncomfortably and turned my attention back to the man in the green tie. Now he was talking about General Douglas Macarthur and the American campaign in the Pacific. I nodded along with the young lad in the soccer jersey, watching the sweat marks grow on the pink shirt in front of me.

For half an hour we stood motionless in the hot sun before creeping forward a few metres. Then 10 minutes later there was a surge and we found ourselves in the shade. We were definitely progressing but I was running out of time. I had to get to work by midday.

Still stuck in the same place at 11.30, I gave up. Bidding farewell to the big-bellied man and his attentive companion, I headed in the direction of my office. I was hot, tired and ticketless but part of me was glad. I was no longer waiting in the queue.

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