I played football as a kid. Since then, I have ignored the game. But a semi-final match in the fanatic city of Panama is just what I needed to remember what it was about the game that I loved when I was young.
I played football as a kid growing up outside of Toronto, Canada. It was a popular sport back then because it was affordable for struggling blue-collar parents who couldn’t afford to put their over-energized preteen into Canada’s true pride and glory; hockey. I sucked at football. So bad, actually, that in my three year childhood career as a defender, I scored only two goals, one of which was offside (but no less glorious) and the other, well, it was on my own net. Apparently, it’s not wise to aimlessly kick rocks around the field while waiting for the play to arrive. By age nine, I had retired.
During my teenage years, sports were never ‘my thing’. I didn’t like playing them, watching them on T.V., hearing about them on the radio or reading about them in the newspaper. I even hated when televisions in bars and pubs played sports - I would wallow in emotionless indifference when the drinkers would cheer in unison after a goal was scored. I just didn’t care. I was more into girls, cooking and art. Then in my twenties I started to travel. A lot. All over the world, actually. And even then, while visiting some of the most famous football-loving cities on the planet like Madrid, London, Glasgow, Munich, Rome and Barcelona, I couldn’t have cared any less for the sport. I know, I know... it’s sort of like not smoking weed while traveling through Amsterdam (of which I am also guilty).
While visiting some of the most famous football-loving cities on the planet like Madrid, London, Glasgow, Munich, Rome and Barcelona, I couldn’t have cared any less for the sport.
Last year, I moved from my Canadian hometown of Toronto to the Central American hub of Panama City. I moved there to write a novel and to live like a king on thirty dollars a day. It was not long before I was invited to my first Central American football match with a group of expat friends. And it wasn’t just any old match either; it was the highly anticipated semi-finals of the 2011 coveted Copa Centroamericana. Panama vs. Costa Rica. I was told the rivalry was historic and intense and definitely worth watching - even if football ‘wasn’t really my thing’. Someone even compared it to the ongoing friction between Catholics and Protestants.
The morning of the match I was suddenly a football fan. I lined up to buy over-priced tickets with the hurried locals at a drug store downtown and I scoured the city for a Panama National Football jersey. I wanted to be part of ‘The Red Tide’ as the Panama team and their fans are known.
Our small group rolled up outside the Estadio Rommel Fernández and we soon joined the ten-thousand-strong mad rush of fervent Panamanians. We were white and probably looked like marshmallows bobbing up and down in a stream of hot chocolate. People stared, but we were wearing red so they were friendly. Blue would have been a different story.
There is a distinct energy in a football stadium. An electricity. Anyone who has seen a live match will attest. And it grabs you, it rushes inside of you and you can’t ignore it. Like a conga-line on crack. You just have to be a part of it. Resistance is futile. And after you have been sucked in, there is no going back. You are committed to victory. We cheered with the locals and gripped the fence in front of us in excitement. We wrestled hundreds of aggressive and thirsty fans for cheap local Balboa beer in thin plastic cups. We took pictures while trying not to seem like shutter-happy tourists. We fit in as seamlessly as marshmallows could.
There is a distinct energy in a football stadium. An electricity. Anyone who has seen a live match will attest. And it grabs you, it rushes inside of you and you can’t ignore it.
Costa Rica’s Borges Mora scored the first goal and the crowd erupted in a disappointed cry. But Panama’s Blas Pérez Ortega was quick to respond with a goal and when he did, boy, did the red tide rise. The stadium shook upon its foundations. The fence in front of us wobbled to and fro with the force of a thousand hands. A fire even broke out in one of the floor level gates and fire extinguishers were going off like fireworks. And then it started: the shower of ten thousand cups full of watered-down beer. It seemed like every spectator knew it was coming. Everyone but us. Translucent cups and streams of beer were all I could see. The iconic scene in Frank Miller’s ‘300’ when the Persian arrows blot out the sun comes to mind. We were drenched in beer and as empty cups continued to bounce off our sweaty, red shoulders, the smell of sour malt hung in the air like a thick cloud. But through it all we never stopped cheering, we never stopped shaking that fence, we never stopped loving it. We were cheering in the rain of cerveza. During the madness I remembered that one offside goal from my childhood, I remembered the rush, the pumping adrenaline, the feeling of invincibility. I remembered what I loved about football.
The game ended in a tie which was enough for Costa Rica to advance to the finals (where they would end up losing to Honduras 1-2). The crowd of ten thousand Panamanians all sauntered out of the stadium in a sombre procession. They sauntered back to their glass skyscrapers. They sauntered back to their coffee plantations. They sauntered back to their cobbled together barber shops and their wonderful colonial streets. They sauntered and the flowing red tide began to ebb. And I sauntered with them but I felt different, changed, affected. As if that rain of beer had soaked into my pores and reminded me of something. As if ten thousand voices cheered loud enough for me to finally listen. I was a born again football fan.
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