Ole Ole Ole Ole Ticos Ticos

Last night, we were originally to be in Panama, having completed meetings with our client, discussing the next steps and planning out strategies. Over bottles of Panama Lager, of course. But as is well-known in the industry, plans change. And when the client needs to alter their schedule, you end up doing things a little differently.

So we’re still in Costa Rica. (The meeting is now tomorrow, but I’m not going. Why I’m not going will be plainly obvious tomorrow.)

Instead of hanging around the hotel’s swim-up bar, we decided to take in something different: A football game. What North Americans know as “soccer”.

After work yesterday Mark, Ingrid, and I packed into the back of Jason and Jen’s Pathfinder to head out to the national stadium in north San Jose — an area called Tibas. Ingrid navigated, since she seems to know every freaking corner in Costa Rica, and without her, we’d probably have had some difficulty getting there (considering the traffic we were trying to avoid). As it stands, the location isn’t really that hard to get it, but weaving around so many blocks last night, it took us a while to realise where we were.

It wasn’t hard to know when we were getting close to the stadium — the glow of the lights was clearly visible at a distance. We parked on the road a couple of blocks away (Ingrid knew a great place) for 5,000 colones (about $10). This is cheap, considering that if you don’t pay them, you might never see your car again.

You think I’m kidding, don’t you?

The road leading to the stadium was pretty much packed — wall-to-wall fans, all dressed in red (the team’s primary colour). Hooting and hollering were expected. Vendors sold new jerseys on the sides, putting their wares on tarps over the broken sidewalks and potholed streets, hanging them from the battered rusty fences. Several vendors offered meat-on-a-stick (not sure what the exact term is for that), and the smell of cooking meats was hard to avoid.

Given that we hadn’t eaten dinner yet, it was very tempting. But refrain is a well-learned art.

Suddenly the crowd slowed as we arrived at the first of several checkpoints. Here, we had to show our tickets to prove we had the right to be there. Riots aren’t exactly common here (the police make sure of that), but they do a lot to make sure that only the people with tickets get to be in the area. Ingrid’s husband Mauricio was waiting just on the other side of the checkpoint, and handed our tickets to us as we got to the front.

Once inside, you couldn’t miss the cops. They were scattered about, watching, keeping an eye out for misbehaviour. Although a large throng of loud people, no-one was acting particularly poorly. We stopped at a bar that was roughly kiddie-corner from the stadium itself (already very loud, and we weren’t even in it) to get a beer before going in. We were told that they were already sold out.

Turns out that they were almost sold out. But inside, it was clear that they’d been virtually cleaned out. There was nothing left in the fridges. The beer was cold, even if it was in a plastic cup. It tasted like Imperial or Pilsen, but I’m not sure which it was (I couldn’t see the bottle from which it was poured).

The tickets were checked about a half-dozen more times as we went in through the gates and headed towards our seats. The stadium is not like any I’ve been in before. I’ve been to baseball games, football games, basketball games, and hockey games in North America. Most of those stadiums are practically half malls, with large brightly-lit areas for food, drink, and of course, souvenirs. Like almost everything in Costa Rica, this stadium was open-air. There were hardly any lights, and only one concession stand that I could see.

As we entered into the stadium, the roar got substantially louder. And the crowd wasn’t even cheering. That’s just the background noise. The stadium has four sets of bleachers — one on each side, with the corners completely devoid of any structure. The ones on the long sides have a lower reserved-seating, a middle “executive” style seating, and the ever-present nosebleed seats on top. The ones at either end are just a single set of bleachers, about 30 rows at one end, and 20 at the other. The taller one seems to be the rowdy section.

We were at the back of the lower section, just to the right of the centre line. A really great view of the field, really. The seats, incidentally, were 12,000 colones (about $24), or about 1/5 the price of equivalent seats at any other game in North America.

Of the seats I could see (I couldn’t see the nosebleeds above us), roughly 90% were wearing red, 7-8% were wearing blue, and about 2-3% (including we gringos) were wearing something other than those colours. Red, as I already mentioned, is the colour of the Costa Rican National team. Blue is the colour of the El Salvador National team.

This was no ordinary game. This is one of the FIFA 2010 World Cup qualifying games. You gotta win here to even get a shot at the World Cup. And El Salvador is not a trivial team to beat. Given, we’re not talking about the Mexicos of the world (we won’t even mention Brazil), but they weren’t about to simply give the game up, either.

The jeering was already well underway, with anyone supporting El Salvador (usually very proudly) getting a lot of whistling and a serious amount of name-calling. People here are very vocal. And things can get ugly, so there are police scattered all over, just to be safe.

Incidentally, I have no pictures of all this, because you’re not allowed to bring in cameras. Not because of reasons like TicketMaster (no unauthorised pictures of performers) but for safety and security. The past has been pock-marked with things being thrown onto the field — notably at players — and withing the crowds, causing injuries and sometimes leading to larger-scale incidents. As such, certain things are banned. The list has been turned into marketing, and is repeated constantly throughout the game on the video screen (you see it more than you do anything of the game itself):

That said, cell phones are apparently still permitted. But I don’t have a cell phone with a camera. Ergo, I’ve got no pictures. (Though Mauricio will be sending pictures my way, so hopefully you’ll see something in the next day or two.) I could have probably snuck my camera in, but it’s also highly likely it would have been confiscated if seen.

When the teams the field, the crowd started to go wild. There wasn’t the totally-buzzed up introduction for the home team — both entered the field at once. Frankly, a far more reasonable approach to having the visiting team have to put up with the potential abuse. That was followed by the singing of the national anthems, which was very respectful (given the rivalry, you could have expected Ticos to drown out the Salvadoreans, but they didn’t), and very loud (Americans have nothing on Ticos for singing proudly).

As soon as the teams started to take to the field, everyone started buzzing with anticipation (and you could regularly hear the chant that has become the title of this post), the drink and food vendors started getting more active, and the riot police donned their helmets.

Again, you probably think I’m kidding.

The details of the game are rather unimportant (Costa Rica won, thanks to a goal in the first half as a result of a penalty kick), it’s more about the experience. I’d never been to a soccer/football game before, and certainly not in a country where football/soccer fields are clearly marked on virtually every map. They come in almost any size, and I think each baby is handed a ball when they’re born.

People take football (futbol) here seriously and passionately. Take Ingrid, for example. At the office, which is where (until last night) was mostly where I knew her, she’s a wonderful person. Helpful, smart, and eloquently-spoken. Get her in a red shirt and put her in a soccer game, and she makes sailors blush. While I couldn’t understand most of it, I’ve never heard “puta” (a particularly nasty Spanish curse that effectively means “whore”) so much in my life.

I kid, of course. Ingrid wasn’t the only one shouting that at the top of their lungs.

It was particularly bad when El Salvador won a penalty kick against Costa Rica. The two sections of El Salvador fans (a small one in the south bleachers, and what sounded like a massive section above us in the nosebleeds) started cheering. The rest of the stadium then started whistling (the loud kind of whistle), cat-calling, yelling “puta”, and waving middle fingers.

I’m sure this is all in good nature, of course.

With the game over, we retreated to the streets to find our way back to the cars. The road at the north end of the stadium (next to the rowdy bleachers, and where the locker rooms are for the teams) was blocked by 10 policemen in riot gear on horseback. They make sure everyone continued on their way north back to their cars, and home.

The route back wasn’t nearly as complicated as the route in, and we were soon in what I consider to be familiar territory. (I do have a decent sense of direction, but it’s always good to see landmarks you recognise.) We were soon speeding down the pista (Spanish for “highway”) into Escazu to get something to eat. It was almost 23:00, and none of us had eaten anything since lunch (except Jen, who had the good sense to inhale a “ghetto pizza” before leaving).

Harry’s, the first place we tried, was packed. You couldn’t even get into the parking lot. We blitzed right past it down the old road, going over the mountain to the Santa Ana side, finally stopping at an old favourite: Yakky’s. Even at 23:30, a plate of arroz con pollo tastes pretty darn good.

Well, that an a couple beers, of course.

Having covered pretty much all of the “big” stadium sports (hockey, baseball, basketball, American football, football/soccer), I have to say football/soccer is one of my more favoured ones. Still, it’s hard to watch two hours of a game without something to eat and/or drink (that’s what makes baseball bearable). If I’m lucky, I’ll get to see another game.

I just have to work on my cursing.

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