Friday, July 13, 2007

When politics mix with fútbol (that wasn't "GOOOOOOOOOOOOL" they were shouting in Venezuela .....)

The stadium shook as the passionate crowd seemed to unite in one resounding voice at the Copa America soccer match in Maracaibo, Venezuela two weeks ago. A chant was taking hold, and it grew louder and louder as people joined in, clapping and stomping their feet at the same time.

At first, I couldn’t understand what they were saying. The chant had started on the other side of the stadium, in one of the “popular” sections. But as it gained force and moved around to where we were sitting, it became clear.

They were chanting, “RCTV! RCTV! RCTV!”

In late May, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez shut down Venezuela's oldest and most-watched television network, RCTV, saying it sought to undermine his government. Recent polls show that between 70% and 80% of Venezuelans oppose the closing of the station. These figures seemed to be reflected loudly and clearly in the chants coming from the stands.


For a few minutes, even though the game was in full swing, no one was paying attention to the field.

Venezuela is a self-proclaimed “país de béisbol” rather then fútbol. A popular TV commercial acknowledges this fact and then turns it around, showing Minnesota Twins star pitcher Johan Santana playing a pick-up soccer game on the street with a group of children – the tagline says, “In a country of baseball, we also play soccer.”

But the Venezuelans love soccer, too. The newly refurbished stadiums practically glisten with pride, and the country is awash in “Vinotinto” mania, celebrating the national team with wine-colored jerseys and reggaeton songs.

And Venezuelans know it is a privilege to be hosting the oldest international soccer tournament in their home country, and to be watching the best of the best on their fields – especially the Argentine team, with its dazzling footwork and superstar players.

This was an eagerly awaited game, the first time Argentina would appear on the field. Many Venezuelans feel a close connection with Argentina, as evidenced by the sky-blue and white jerseys that filled the stadium. And when Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona appeared in the stands, the crowd went wild.

Yet none of that mattered for those few moments at the Pachencho Romero stadium in Maracaibo two weeks ago.


The voices calmed down – but only briefly. Soon a new, louder chant came up:

“Libertad! Libertad! Libertad!”

On the field, the Argentine team continued to dazzle the US with its lightning-fast footwork, but again, no one was looking at the field. People were looking around at each other, the majority chanting and clapping together, united in passion and purpose.

In a few minutes, the crowd calmed down again, and seemed to return to the business of watching the game.

But the chants weren’t finished. There was one more left – this one, a song that swept through the stadium and reverberated into the night:

“Y va a caer, y va caer, este gobierno va a caer!”

(“It’s going to fall, it’s going to fall, this government is going to fall.”)

The crowd had made its point, and finally the public’s attention returned to the field to watch the end of the game. (Final score: Argentina 4, US 1.)

I went to the Copa America game fully expecting the US team to be booed. The Venezuelan government makes no secret of its disdain for the US and its policies, and quite honestly, much of that disdain is based on a history of some highly indefensible actions on the part of the US in the region. In fact, as a result of that history - and some current
policies as well - anti-Americanism can be considered another popular sport in much of Latin America.

So I was ready for the boos. I braced for them when a parachutist with an American flag landed on the field to open the game, and again when the US team took the field. But the boos never came. Instead, the US was greeted with polite applause. (Of course, the roaring cheers were reserved for the Argentines.)

The only hoots, whistles and boos came when a parachutist with a flag saying “PDVSA” – the Venezuelan national oil company, associated with the Chávez government – landed.

And then there were the chants.

There were many goals scored during the Argentina-US match, and many chances for the crowd to leap to its feet, screaming 'GOOOOOOOOOL!' – which they did, deliriously.

But they had something else to say, too.

And in this match, perhaps the most important points were made not on the field, but in the stands. At the Copa America game between Argentina and the US on June 28, the people may have scored the loudest goal.

No comments: