Six months before the 2010 World Cup, Paraguay’s star striker, Salvador Cabañas, was shot in the head in a bar in Mexico. I was living in Paraguay, and I witnessed how the tragedy affected the nation. Grown men were brought to their knees when they heard the news. Fans set up mini altars in their bedrooms. Newspapers published almost nothing except conspiracy theories about who was behind the shooting.
As the country grieved the possible dual deaths of a national idol and their dreams of winning the World Cup, I remembered when I first realized how serious Paraguay was about soccer.
I decided to go to my first soccer game in Paraguay not because I loved the sport, but because I wanted to impress my host family.
The game was against Brazil, so finding affordable tickets was the first obstacle. As soon as tickets became available, they were immediately bought out by scalpers, who gave deals to friends and charged outrageous prices to everyone else. I managed to secure a bleacher seat for only double its face value.
Game day looked like Carnival in Asunción. People of all ages and genders were wearing red and white striped soccer jerseys, blowing horns, banging drums, and getting drunk. Those who couldn’t go to the game sat in lawn chairs on the street, watching it on TV or listening to it on the radio. The sense of camaraderie only broke when someone is accused of being Brazilian: those were fighting words.
As my friend Ace and I waded through the throng of fanatics towards the security queue, he leaned over to me.
“Take your belt off.” Ace whispered.
“Knock if off,” I replied, to what I thought was one of Ace’s frequent sexual advances.
“No, seriously, security is confiscating belts. They can be used to whip people. Put it on under your shirt, around your belly button, or lose it forever,” he said.
I was starting to feel a little apprehensive. Police officers were meandering through the crowd, giving on-the-spot Breathalyzers to anyone acting too rowdy and arresting those who failed for public intoxication. When we reached the front of the line, I presented my ID to a female security officer, who let me in after gently patting me down. After being subjected to a much more thorough screening, Ace had his cigarettes and flask confiscated.
The cheap seats were really just cement steps. We made ourselves as comfortable as possible, buying rum and cornbread from unlicensed vendors. Soon afterward, the balloons filled with urine started to fly. They were mostly aimed at the seats where the Brazilian fans sat, safely ensconced behind a human wall of riot police armed to the nuts with tear gas, assault rifles, and stun grenades.
The first half passed in a flurry. There wasn’t a scoreboard, so it was hard to keep track of penalties or time. Brazil had an incredible team, but Paraguay held its own. When Paraguay scored, the fans standing at the top of the steps rushed to the bottom, scream-singing the national anthem and knocking me out of the way. Somewhere in the process, I took a plastic bottle to the face.
The official way to cheer on the team was to chant “Par-a-guay!”, then blast three short whistles. I had never heard 37,000 people whistle in unison before; it was actually kind of beautiful. I learned a new song about how Brazil was Paraguay’s bitch.
Ace seemed to enjoy the aggressive energy and joined in with the rushing, until he got shoved too hard. He jumped up and kicked at the guy who pushed him. Immediately, six other men circled Ace, screaming that he was a Brazilian.
I thought that this was how Ace was going to die, in a soccer stadium. I reached under my shirt, feeling for my belt.
Before I could unbuckle my weapon and defend my friend, Paraguay scored their third goal. Suddenly, the formerly bloodthirsty fans were hugging Ace.
As the second half came to an end, it looked like Paraguay was going to win with a clean sheet. Cabanas almost scored the team’s third goal of the game, but the shot ricocheted off the bar instead. Still: Paraguay 2, Brazil 0. I was thrilled to have keep all my teeth.
I followed Ace and the rest of the cheering fans out of the stadium and through the now dark streets, where we talked about the game’s highlights and drank cans of warm beer. Chants of “World Cup! World Cup!” echoed through the air. I felt like I had been initiated.
I wonder what happened to all the confiscated belts?
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