As Americans go, I'm not entirely hopeless with respect to soccer. As a participant, I enjoyed years of childhood rec leagues and college intra-murals, and have made the occasional effort in Guatemala to particiapate in the local sport. As a spectator, I love the World Cup, and am generally conversant in the more important teams that are always playing for whatevery Lesser Cup they're contesting this week. I know the names of a handful of the world's most famous players, as well as most of the guys on US National Team. At the very least, I'm not one of those people who thinks soccer is a terrible bore because they don't keep changing the rules to make sure they score ten goals a game.
That said, I can't figure Latin American soccer at all. First of all, in Guatemala, they play two seasons a year -- the "apertura" and the "clausura." So each year, two different teams are the "champions." They never play each other to see who's the real champion of the year, theyjust settle for two "champions" each year. And they're ok with this. They just act like both of the teams that win are actually champions, like there was nothing cheap about it all. Having one champion each year is, I suppose, arbitrary, but humankind has divided time by years since some time before the invention of soccer. If you're going with two "champions" a year, why not five? Why not have a different "champion" based on who was ahead at halftime and who won the second half of each game? And on top of having two champions a year, there are a mystifying array of other cups and international club tournaments in addition that I haven't even begun to sort out.
Anyway, not to make it seem less important than it was, but I went to the second leg of the home-and-away Guatemalan National League "Championship" just before departing for Christmas. In Guatemala, there are two teams from Guatemala City -- Municipal and Comunicaciones -- and then ten other teams that rarely, if ever, muster the resources to compete with the big guys. Perhaps because "Municipal" and "Comunicaciones" are a bit unweildy to work into a cheer, the teams are mostly known by their colors; Municipal are the Rojos and Comunicaciones are the Cremas. (The Rojos' mascot is a little devil, while the Cremas' is - no joke - Casper the Friendly Ghost.) When these two play, it is officially called a clasico, even if the game sucks, and when the championship is between the two -- a Classic Championship -- the passion of the city's fans hits a fever pitch.
While each team has their own stadium, when they play in a title game, they play both the home and away games in the larger national stadium. For some reason, it was literally impossible to buy tickets in advance, and we figured that for such a monumental event, we would need to get there early to get a spot in the ticket queue. We arrived at 8:30 for a 12:00 game, walked up, bought tickets, and entered the nearly empty stadium. Apparently the Guatemalan passion for soccer was overmatched by the Guatemalan desire to sleep in on a Sunday. And, much to our dismay, we were informed that nobody would be selling anything to drink in the stadium, and that we couldn't re-enter if we left. With a little sweet-talking, we convinced one guard that this policy was absurd (when applied to us), and he took our names and agreed to let us back in later. We found, among many, the sincerest taco stand outside the stadium, ordered too many tacos, and in a internationally understood pre-game tradition I haven't participated in for years, started drinking beer at 8:30 in the morning.
At the designated hour we re-entered the stadium, prepared with sufficient reinforcements to make sure we stayed in 'game shape' for the duration. The rojo and crema fans were spearated from the field and from each other by twenty feet of cyclone fence and barbed wire. The Cremas had the best regular season record, so they were nominally the home team for the second game, which meant their fans also got the center-field seats. The fans from each side chanted and sang and generally made American sports crowds look a bit reserved. Most charming were the family cheers, such as the entire crowd of one team's fans, when the other team took the field, chanting in unison a swear word whose translation in English is probably the foulest word you care to think of. During the game itself, when someone would commit a hard foul, the crowd would chant a particularly foul Spanish phrase, that in English translates as the comparatively benign "Son of a whore! Son of a whore!"
The game was fair. Not particularly well-played, but close throughout. The home team led after a first-half goal, and after a scoreless tie in the first leg, would win the championship if they held on. Of course, they gave up a soft second-half goal and regulation time ended in a tie. Tied! After two games of championship soccer between the two most storied franchises in Guatemalan soccer! What drama would await in extra time? A sudden-death winner? Penalty kicks? A punishing full-time extra period?
Actually, none of the above. Guatemala is surely -- one hopes -- the only league in the world that decides the grand final league championship on the basis of away goals. (Meaning if the total score added up between the home and away games was a tie, whichever team scored more goals on the opposing team's field wins. So after a 0-0 tie and a 1-1 tie, both on the same field, they awarded the team that happened to tie 1-1 in their "away" game the championship.) The rojo fans went crazy, and there was a trophy ceremony immediately. The crema fans stared in disbelief. We were annoyed, we commiserated with nearby crema fans, and then realized that exactly at the moment of the ending gun of the game, they were allowed to sell beer in the stadium, an opportunity many enterprising vendors helped us enjoy.
We sat around and drank beer until we were the last fans in the stadium, at which point your ever-probing correspondent decided to check out if the "emergency exit" through the fence was actually padlocked, or if one could get through in the case of a fire. In a surprise, you actually could unlatch and open the gate, and with no more security around, we let ourselves onto the field while clean-up crews took down the loudspeakers and advertising banners and such. We asked permission from everyone we could, and nobody seemed to have a problem with us going on the pitch of the National Stadium of Guatemala. Not exactly Old Trafford, but still pretty cool. We went into the administration office and asked to borrow a soccer ball, but they didn't have one. We asked all the cleaning crews and trainers and such. No luck. The National Soccer Stadium of Guatemala! And nary a soccer ball to be had! Tragedy! We settled for taking some shots on goal with an empty water bottle. After a morning of drinking and sitting in the sun, it seemed amusing enough at the time. We surely looked like full-on retards to the straggling clean-up crew, but it was worth it.
And after all this, we had no choice but to go to the home of our friend with the biggest TV and continue the day watching American football, until I fell asleep, lobster-red from the sun and completely hung over at 8:00 in the evening. It was a hard day, but one I was willing to put in for the sake of the international unifying power of sport.