Football is my thing.
The mighty Rochdale AFC are my boyhood team but often being on the other side of the world, I need to get my footy fixes elsewhere. This time I happened to be in Arequipa, Peru, and having caught the end of a news broadcast one evening learned that there would be a playoff semi-final second leg the following day between Melgar of Arequipa and Universitario from Lima. Knowing that in South America there is barely any control over ticket touting I figured I’d get mine a couple of hours before kick off near the stadium.
As anticipated there was absolutely no problem. The municipal stadium is only about half an hour from Arequipa city centre and following the crowds I picked up my ticket from the first of tonnes of gentleman (and ladies) I saw selling them. I was careful to first observe as a Peruvian family handed over some cash for theirs and after doing a few checks they were happy with them. I thus got minefor the Oriente section for 55/S (about 15 USD or £12), quite a steep price considering what I’d paid in Honduras for a match of similar stature the previous year.
The section where the away fans of Universitario were had been cordoned off for a few blocks around so that meant something of a detour to get into the home ends. The queues snaked back rather a distance from the entrances, but people were very orderly and no one tried pushing in. Given we were in line for close to an hour, vendors took advantage to try and sell everything and anything to supporters, such as replica kits, food, drinks, cushions, ponchos (despite no rain being forecast), whistles and the like.
I didn’t buy anything, but did have to pay a lady to look after my belt during the game as they are banned from Peruvian football games. Though I’d never before contemplated it, I suppose throughout the generations worldwide belts have been used to beat naughty children so I imagine that tipsy and rowdy football fans could make good use of them if necessary. As proof of purchase she gave me a slip of pink paper with the number 7 written on it and tied my belt to a tree branch. I wondered if I’d ever see it again, but then saw that there were scores of them hung up everywhere, so decided not to worry. I also wondered whether bouncing up and down when scoring goals would occasion mass incidences of trousers around ankles, but I must admit I forgot to look when the ball was later hitting the back of the net. Surprisingly, I was able to get hold of my belt after the match, after searching for my belt-lady for a little while, and to remember my travails, I still haven’t removed the sellotaped piece of paper from the belt.
Getting through security was pretty straightforward and there was about an hour to go before the match. By now the sun had come out in full force and despite there being widespread shortages of water across most of Peru, the match sponsors deigned to spray the crowd with a massive water pump connected to the back of a truck. The fans loved it and ran down to the front to get wet, and others higher up groaned for not getting soaked. Talking of the sun, the fact most fans were smothered in sun cream should have rung the alarm bells, and I would indeed burn my face, but only where my free cardboard visor wasn’t shading my skin.
To the game and leading 2-1 from the away leg, Melgar were in pole position against Universitario. Despite this, the home team were absolutely abysmal in the first half, and conceded two sloppy goals, one from a corner and another from a counter attack, and couldn’t string two passes together. Admittedly, Universitario could have bagged a hatful but for wastefulness in front of goal and an excellent goalkeeping display from Melgar’s Number 1. At half time they were certainly cruising. Melgar’s star man, a long-haired Tarzan-like ruffian of a striker, went off before half-time, so things didn’t look bright.
In spite of witnessing a turgid performance from their team, to their credit the Melgar fans completely stuck with their players, clapped them into half time and roared them on in the second half with incessant chants of Sí, se puede (Yes, you can). Even though the Melgar players were visibly knackered, they seemed inspired by the crowd and were stronger in the tackle and better on the ball. They hadn’t really created much until a series of intricate passes played a striker through on goal, but he skewed his chance wide. He got a carbon copy of an opportunity just moments later, however, and this time before he could pull the trigger he was scythed down by a defender, who only received a yellow, much to the derision of the now partisan crowd.
The penalty was an opportunity to get back in the game, but the taker rolled it against the post and out of play.
Still the crowd was behind the players and after another nice passage of play, the midget number 22 find himself in on goal and slotted it into the corner with aplomb from the edge of the box. The crowd went wild. As is the case with most Latin American leagues, the teams with a higher league position advance from a playoff if the score is tied after two legs, and away goals don’t come into it, meaning such ties effectively never go to extra time or penalties. Having finished higher in the table this meant Melgar were ahead in the game at 2-2 and Universitario would have to go looking for goals again with less than 20 minutes remaining.
But before they could do that, Melgar popped in another, once again in similar circumstances to earlier with some nice one-touch football. The away side were shell-shocked, and needing two goals to win they were unable to muster anything of note as the game petered out.
At the final whistle the red sea of Melgar fans were jubilant, and the few white dots in our stand, surprisingly in with the home fans, and more surprisingly not occasioning any conflict, melted away in dejection. Melgar would go on to the final but fail to retain the championship they’d won the previous year in 2015.
All in all I’d had a great day out. A few surreal experiences off the pitch had added to the quirkiness of the game and on the pitch I was impressed with the quality of football and the effort displayed by the players. There were some superb passages of play and a willingness to play football on the ground, as well as some excellent cross-field passes sprayed around the pitch from time to time. Most of all I saw how a positive crowd can help turn a game and the Melgar supporters definitely helped drag their team over the line.
What would the world be without football?