They loved their football. I’m not mad keen on football to watch, but growing up in the glory days of the 70’s with Liverpool winning every bit of silverware they could get their hands on, I could hardly avoid being caught up with it. America de Cali, one of the two teams in the city, was the Liverpool of the Colombian league at the time. Their stadium was a few miles from Lucy’s apartment, and an English friend of Graeme’s called Chris asked me if I wanted to go to a game one night. What the hell, I thought. My previous match had been a rather dull draw between England and France at Wembley a year before. I could never could get excited about International football but the prospect of seeing a real club game in Colombia was an opportunity not to be missed. America were playing Barranquilla from the north of the country. I almost didn’t get there due to Mauro deciding to inflict Colombian time keeping on me. I had come back early to be ready to go out for the match starting at 7:30 but Mauro and the rest of his family did not turn up till half six. Dinner was a slow affair and since Mauro was dropping me off at the ground, I was dependent on him moving forward. He insisted on fiddling around in the apartment for ages and then saying I had plenty of time. About ten past seven I reminded him that the game started at 7:30 and I was due to meet this guy at 7:15 as he hadn’t got any tickets. Mauro then blamed me for not telling me before (I had explained it all to him in the morning) and we went on. I know it was nothing malicious on Mauro’s part, he was just operating on Colombian time, which is different from African time where nothing happens, or Caribbean time where they know what time it is but they won’t do anything till it is too late. Colombian time seemed to consist of not knowing what the time was or what schedule you were supposed to be keeping to. As a novice traveller in those days it irritated me enormously. I have learnt to be patient and realise that non-English cultures seem to have a much better grasp of Einstein’s principles of time, that is it is flexible.
For all my useless fretting, Mauro got me to the entrance to the stadium and Chris was there. He was your middle class aficionado of football, straight from the Nick Hornby mould. Tall and rather gaunt, he had been living in Cali for several years and was at ease with its foibles, so he found it quite funny when I apologised for my lateness (it was twenty past seven). We got seats above the centre line and watched a thoroughly entertaining game. Although the football was good enough, the atmosphere in the enormous stadium was electric, and this was a routine mid week league match against an indifferent side. All over the stadium, big bass drums beat out the chants, firecrackers were let off around the ground, and thousands of men, women and children all shouted for Cali. Of the 50,000 crowd, about 120 percent were America supporters, Barranquilla supporters having either too far to travel or having been surreptitiously murdered before entering the ground. America de Cali were owned by one of the big drug cartels in the city, which paid for the high wages and ensured a level of fear amongst the players to play their edgy best at all times. Referees in the country were given armed escorts, although that didn’t always protect them sufficiently. The chant in Spanish of “Who’s the Bastard in the Black Coffin” would occasionally go around the ground.
Despite the hostile undertones, the vast majority of spectators were in family groups and in between the moments of high drama on the pitch there was a lot of chit chat around us. I got talking to the people behind me about how Liverpool had done in the previous season (unfortunately it was not one of their better years), and whether Colombia would get into the World Cup in the USA this time around.
The sound of banging drums, bands playing and cheering still echoed in my ears as we headed back to Chris’s car. Everyone was happy, America de Cali had won 2-2. I got to thinking that Latin American matches were a lot more fun than European ones. Absolutely everyone was in to football in Cali. At the weekends, whole hoards of people would turn up at a house and watch the match. Bottles of Aguadiente would come out, a Colombian spirit with an aniseed aftertaste, and every time there was a shot on goal, not necessarily a goal itself, there was a round of shots of spirit downed in one. I must have taken 40 shots in one match. The mass commercialism of football came in earlier in Latin America than in the UK, the matches were peppered with advertisements. Instead of waiting for half time or the end of the match, though, they managed to squeeze in ten second commercials for cars, cleaning fluid and hamburgers every time the ball went out of play. And if the ball was in play, a floating square would show an advert in one corner of the screen while you watched the play in another corner. If the ball fell down behind the advert, the square was moved to another corner. In this way you got extremely irritated that you could neither make head or tale of the advert, nor watch the football match with any concentration. When a goal was scored, the inevitable scream from the commentator still held that no matter how poor the build up was, he needed to shout “Goooooooooooooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaalllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll” for as long as his breathe would hold out. The celebrations in the house were incredible, no matter who had scored. Aguadiente all round, kiss your mother, kiss your sister, kiss the bambino, throw the bambino in the air, scrape the bambino off the ceiling, dance up and down, tread on the dog’s toes, chastise the dog for bighting the bambino. It usually took five minutes for the household to calm down again.