Will and two Irishmen go to a soccer match in Colombia, which is amusing because he doesn't know the first thing about the sport. But this isn't just any old football scrap. It’s El Clasico, between Medellin's two local clubs: Nacional and Independiente. Will has thoughts about community, pride and commitment. Text POD to (332) 877-9540 to be our friend (or sign up here if you're outside the US and Canada).
Weird trivia and stuff Will wants to say
- I could have done like six episodes just describing Caleb as a person. One time, he told a story in passing about a time he rode his motorcycle through Central America with a biker gang, and then he just moved on and asked me about me, as though I had something remotely as cool to say after that. He’s a retired cop from Northern Ireland, and he’s a little under sixty which means he was there for some of the IRA violence, so he’s seen some shit. The guy’s interesting.
- I learned in researching this episode that a lot has been written about the barras bravas (mostly where they're most active: Argentina). Apparently, 179 people have died in Argentina since 1990 due to “soccer-related violence,” which feels like a lot of deadness for a dumb game. It checks out though. Geoff, Caleb and I spent a fair amount of time with an Argentinian who doesn’t appear in this episode. He strongly advised that we all stay the hell away from the ultras cheering section. We ignored him because we're morons.
- The primary stadium audio loop you’re hearing in the episode is pulled from an iPhone video I actually recorded at the game. I went to the game long before I ever considered hosting a podcast, so it’s kind of fun that it came in handy. On that note, the guy who yells after I mention Geoff (at the 1:23 mark) is, well, actually Geoff. That yell turned out to be bothersome because I had to trim the loop so he didn't keep yelling "Ayeee!" every thirty seconds.
I wanted a little more texture to the sound, so I layered on a second recording from a game in Valparaiso, Chile (which I did not attend). It's mostly at a lower volume, but I kick it up every once in a while during pauses in my monologue. I speak decent Spanish now, but not enough to deduce what screaming fans are saying in unison, so I have this deep fear that something they say is specific to Valparaiso (or just generically dirty) and a fluent Spanish speaker will think I'm an idiot. Oh well. Que sera, sera.
- I have to write the word football instead of soccer somewhere on this page for the sake of SEO. Beg your pardon.
Relevant articles and posts by smart people
- Barras Bravas: The Dark Side of Soccer by Isaac Schlotterbeck
- Medellín, Colombia: Overcoming Escobar’s Legacy by Flora Davies
- Metro Culture of Medellin - A Private Tour by Marina Kuperman Villatoro
- How Medellin went from murder capital to hipster holiday destination by Stanley Stewart
I hear with my little ear
- Loud soccer fans in Valparaiso, Chile.
- Even louder soccer fans somewhere else.
- Sounds of a soccer match.
- Cheering after a goal is scored by Brentford FC in England.
- A restaurant in Cartagena.
- The actual Medellin metro.
- A guy having a hard time selling gum and cigarettes in Cali.
- A busy street in Santa Marta.
- The ole NYC subway “stand clear of the closing doors, please” guy.
[Sounds of stadium, cheering fans]
In English, these people are called Ultras because they have way, way more energy than anyone should, ever. In Spanish, they’re called “barras bravas” (fierce gangs) and that’s probably more accurate. They’ are really gangs, with leaders and followers and pecking orders and criminal activity of every type. These guys are so influential they’re almost a political entity in South America.
I realize that might sound like an exaggeration for a cheering section at a soccer match, but look, I’ve been to three Army/Navy football games at West Point. I watched nine players get ejected at the Yale Whale when Yale played North Dakota in hockey-turned-ice-boxing in like 2005 [NOTE: It was 2002. My bad. I was eleven so I’m not that sorry]. I was at the 2017 NLCS, when Justin Turner hit a walk-off three-run shot out of Dodger Stadium to win game two against the Cubs.
Trust me, this is no ordinary cheering section.
I’m under a hundred foot long blue and red tarp. “Independiente Medellin” is scrawled on the front. The shadow of the “D” in Medellin is right over my head. My friend Geoff is standing behind me, jumping up and down like he’s been following this team his whole life.
I can’t even see the field, but that’s okay. My team sucks, and anyway, there’s way more action right here, in the middle of this crazy-ass cheering section. I’ve already seen two fights in the stands. Geoff said he watched guys out in the hallway sprinkling cocaine in their joints, so there’s… you know, energy.
At normal games, things are so insane they’re borderline violent. I mean, they make fans from different clubs leave at different times to keep them separated.
But this? It's not a normal game.
This is El Clásico. Medellin’s two local clubs, Nacional and Independiente, squaring off. It’s fucking mayhem. Geoff and I are exactly where we were told by everybody we shouldn’t be: two white guys in the middle of the action under the homemade tarp, jumping up and down and high fiving and screaming with the rest of 'em.
[Theme Music Begins]
This is Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells.
I’m Will Conway. Today, we explore community.
We explore what it means to dedicate yourself to a place, to a people, so wholeheartedly that you’ll stake your entire emotional health - your very psychology - to its rise and fall.
Text POD to (332) 877-9540 to be my friend.
All right. Um, play ball?
[Theme Music Ends]
[Sounds of restaurant chatter]
It’s a few days before the game - early evening - and I’m in a restaurant in El Poblado, a charming but touristy neighborhood in Medellin. I’m sitting next to Geoff. He’s athletic, mid-twenties, handsome, endearing Irish brogue and he’s wearing thin glasses and a white soccer jersey with red lettering.
Geoff loves soccer. He’s a huge fan of Harry Kane who, according to Google, is a striker for the Tottenham Hotspurs. They seem to be a soccer team. Also, the guy's name is Harry Kane, with a K, and not Crane, who Google gently reminded me was a supporting character on Mad Men. There’s also apparently a statistics professor at Rutgers. So, you know, put that in your pocket.
I met Geoff in Medellin. He’s backpacked all over the world, and one of his very favorite activities is showing up at local matches, buying a knockoff jersey for the home team and pretending he’s a lifelong fan. When I asked him how he’d feel if I went to Tottenham and did the same thing to his team, he told me I wouldn’t be believable because I can’t even name one player.
I said, “Yeah you told me about Harry Crane.”
He said, “See, that’s exactly the sort of comment that makes you unbelievable.”
Across from us sits is an older Irishman - a retired police officer named Caleb with a heavy white beard, a potbelly, rutty cheeks and a whimsical way of being. It might sound like I’m describing Santa Claus and that’s fair, because if you take away that third whiskey tumbler he’s polishing off right now, I might have thought the same. Really, Caleb’s the life of the party. He’s in his late fifties, which is a little odd at a youth hostel, but he’s so lovely and charming he becomes the center of gravity almost immediately. Geoff asked he and I if we want to go to a soccer match. We both said yes.
I’d noticed our hostel was organizing groups every Saturday for the games, but Geoff said "No, no, we want to go on our own. The tour groups sit you on the length-wise strip of the stadium. Where you really want to be," he said, "Is behind the goal. That’s where the action is - that’s where the Ultras are."
Caleb’s ears perked up. “Isn’t it crazy dangerous there?” he asked.
Geoff blushed a bit.
Caleb said, “Hell with it, I’m an old man and I’m too old for this shit, so I’ll come with you to the stadium but I’m going to sit in the calm section.”
I shrugged my shoulders. I almost drowned in a lagoon last month. I evaded kidnapping by hanging out in a public toilet two weeks ago. I almost shit in the street last weekend. Figured I should keep the streak going.
[Sound of metro doors opening, murmurs of passengers]
So on Saturday in the late morning, we hop on Medellin’s metro rail. It’s one of the more stunning metro rail systems you’ll ever see, by the way. The system first opened in 1995 and it’s considered largely responsible for the recent economic success of Medellin which, in 1988, Time Magazine dubbed “the most dangerous city on earth.” Locals are incredibly proud of the system. It’s one of the few metro systems in South America. It's the only one in Colombia. That includes Bogota, by the way, a city almost three times as large as Chicago. There’s no graffiti, no scuffs, no dirt or grit. It’s pristine, quiet and completely untouchable.
But today, it’s a little boisterous. Clogged thick with people in the iconic green and white striped jerseys of the very popular Nacional club, and just a small smattering of quiet, timid people keeping to themselves in the flamboyant blue and red uniforms of Independiente.
“Geoff,” I ask as we pull into Estadio, our stop. “Which side are we on?”
“I’m not sure,” he says.
[Sounds of metro doors opening, street noises].
Geoff and Caleb and I wander down to the stadium. Little restaurants and bars. People walking around and sharing a drink, wearing both jerseys and mixing just fine. This isn’t so bad. No one seems aggressive. Game time is in an hour.
We grab a drink at a pub. I try to explain with my hands that we want a pitcher of Aquila, Colombia’s much tastier version of Bud Light. It’s everywhere. The server laughs at my terrible game of charades, but he gets it and walks away. Geoff pulls out our tickets. Caleb grabs his. Looks like we’re all on the side of Independiente - Geoff and I in the pits with the barra brava, Caleb on the side where it’s a bit calmer.
Geoff says we need to buy jerseys if we’re going in. We need to blend as much as possible - we want people to think we’re fans. I decide not to explain that an Irishman and a white American in a mosh pit at a soccer match in Colombia are never ever ever in a million years going to blend, ever.
But there's a guy walking around with knockoff jerseys - the Puma brand logo is backward and they’re fraying a bit. We buy two for 20,000 Pesos each - about five bucks. Caleb decides he’s a rebel and he’s going into the Independiente side with a green and white Nacional jersey.
"I like the green and white," he says. "It reminds of home. It reminds me of Ireland."
Geoff's eyebrows go high and his face turns beet red.
“That’s an awful idea,” he says.
And I think it’s all stupid. It’s just sports, how bad can it be?
But it doesn't matter - it's time to split up anyway. Caleb's got to go to his own gate. Geoff and I are going to the pits with the Ultras.
We say goodbye to Caleb, make loose plans to meet up at the metro after the game, and head on our way.
[Rising crowd noise, drums]
Okay, I’m starting to see the problem. The game hasn’t even started yet, but people are hammered. So drunk.
High above me, at the top of the stadium, people are standing on the back of the stadium. Like, on the back, on this little two-inch little edge three feet below the concrete barricade, with their heels hanging off and holding onto the barrier. They slip, they fall 75 or 100 feet and die. But still, they’re pumping their fists and cheering. Blue and red chalk smoke and confetti swirling above them. Drums and chants.
Ahead of us, there’s intense security. This isn’t just a private security firm hired by the stadium. Helmets, bulletproof vests, M4s strapped to their chests. Holy shit. We weave through the line and get a full pat-down. Everything out of my pockets, security guard fingering the lint in my pocket and every little bunch of cotton in my underwear. But we’re in.
The stadium itself is pretty stripped-down: just a concrete floor under bleacher-style seating. To the right, it’s quiet - the solemn middle, where families and older people and just reasonable, non-insane humans take their seats.
To the left, it’s absolute mayhem. Battle drums and horns like a battalion of scrap metal beating its chests in Mad Max, guitar playing psycho strapped to the front of a semi-truck and all. It gets louder and louder as we approach, chalk smoke thick like fog and we’re almost coughing. It’s so loud I can barely hear. So loud Geoff has to yell to get my attention and point to our gate.
We’re in. The sun is setting, and we can see the mountains turning deeper and deeper purple against an orange sky. It’s peaceful and serene and nothing like here.
The field is before us, the game started just a minute ago. It’s not a massive stadium. The internet says it sits 45,000, but I’ll tell you what, I can hear every single one of them. And then there are the fans and… holy shit we picked the wrong team. We’re at one end, and red and blue jerseys extend maybe 20 percent of the way to midfield. The rest is green and white. I feel like I’m in 300 and standing down the massive Persian army.
And speaking of standing, no one is sitting. Not even for a second. Not even at halftime. The place is on its feet, chanting and screaming and cheering the whole game long. At the opposite goal, people are dancing and chanting and drumming and rolling out signs and blowing off their own chalk smoke.
One thing that strikes me here is how homemade the entire production is. I’m used to the NBA, MLB, NFL, even college athletics or minor league baseball. All the banners are made by the team. The chants and the group activities - they’re all started by the official sound system, the announcer in the booth. It’s the job of the team to entertain you. But here, there’s nothing. There’s no announcer, there’s no jumbotron, there are no posters. There isn’t a single official logo for either team anywhere in the stadium, except on players’ jerseys. There’s a scoreboard, and there’s us. That’s it. The fans build the entire thing themselves. They start their own chants, they bring their own homemade flags and signs and banners. The smoke cannons, which are going all game long? Honestly, I think they brought those too, but I’m not sure.
Something about it - right down to the backward Puma on my jersey - makes the whole thing feel a hell of a lot more authentic. This thing isn’t some bureaucratic, business-interested money grab manufacturing artificial excitement. No, these are real, authentic people who are passionate about their city.
Also, Geoff tells me that our team - whose name I’ve already forgotten - is really bad. They’re by far the underdogs. The green and white guys are good - one of the best teams in Colombia - and our guys are going to get crushed. So that sucks.
But the game goes on and, for the first half, it’s pretty even. Our even guys score first, and the whole place somehow finds another level of energy. It’s complete mayhem. Somebody built a paper mache doll of the guy who just scored and that thing is now crowd surfing the whole place. And fuck it, I’m in. We picked the underdog team. We’re invested. Let’s go blue and red guys. Independiente.
Halftime. It’s 2-2. And it seems like we - I’m using second person plural now - it seems like we might even squeak this one out.
Geoff says the play on the field is really low quality.
I don’t know what that means exactly because I haven’t played soccer since I scored on my own goal in second grade and cried the entire way home and made my mom buy me Legos, but he said the level of play when he saw a game in Argentina the year before was just way better. He says neither of these teams could even compete in Argentina.
And honestly, fuck you, Geoff. This is the best team in the world. These are my guys. These guys, the em… the blue and red team? Independiente. They just showed up in this stadium - their home stadium, in their own fucking city - with like 80% of the fans wearing green and white jerseys, and they’re hanging in there. 2-2 at halftime. So fuck you Geoff. Fuck you and your Argentinian bullshit. I don’t care if you saw the Tottenham Hot Potatoes play the Chelsea Daggers at Wembley, these are my guys. And so Geoff gets really quiet as the second half starts and maybe I went too far.
And then the green team scores.
Actually, I paused too much there. The second half starts and the green team scores. No period, no comma.
[All sounds go silent]
And our half goes really quiet, which is weird. The other side explodes like a volcano, and we can feel the thumping of their side through the vibrations in the stadium seats we’re all standing on, like a man on railroad tracks or that scene from Jurassic Park when the water in the cup shakes and you know T-Rex is trying to be all sneaky.
And it’s dead quiet, for like ten seconds. And everyone’s bummed. And then - and I don’t know how they all know to do this at the same time - but then everyone literally forgets anything just happened and they all jump at once and pick up in their chants from right in the middle, right where they left off. It’s only 3-2. It’s a good game. It’s fine. We got this.
Fuck they scored again.
And then the mood shifts. It was celebratory at halftime, and now it’s not.
And people are maudlin and drunk and staggering, and this went from so cool to really, really sad. Real fast. I’m just now noticing these people are old - like some are in their forties and fifties and sixties and maybe even seventies, and they’re working-class, mostly, which in Colombia means they saved up for months for this. This is kind of all they’ve got. If the red and blue team loses, they are sad. That’s the reality.
And fights start breaking out, and then the green and white team scores again, and the energy in the crowd pretty much guarantees there’s no shot for a comeback, because 80% of the stadium is going crazy and my guys are all sad and moping. But they never stop cheering, even though they’re fighting with each other. They never stop chanting and putting up new banners and waving flags, but it gets sadder and sadder and sadder. It’s the 89th minute now and there’s no chance for anything but no one’s going anywhere. No one’s even thought about leaving. And now it’s the 90th and someone says four minutes for stoppage time, which really just feels like adding insult to injury. But people are still holding out hope and watching through their fingers and making the sign of the cross over their chest and then the whistle blows and it’s over and I swear to god, forty percent of these grown men are crying.
[Far away victory cheers]
And it becomes obvious that this is more than a team for these people. No this club is a passion, a culture, a way of being. That exists in baseball and hockey and athletics in other places, no doubt, but there’s something down to the bone about this - so gritty and real and emotional. And I realize I can’t use second person plural pronouns with these guys. Not because I went to a game one time. This is a way of life, and these people own this team. This stadium, these people, this is Colombia. The players on the field are an afterthought. This is a celebration.
Geoff and I leave, and we wander out with all the maudlin drunks, past the police in their riot gear and down to the metro, and we wait there for a long time, waiting for Caleb. But he doesn’t come. No one from the green and white team comes, and we realize he was funneled out a different way, to the opposite end of the station. And so we hop back on that pristine metro, with all these people proudly wearing those jerseys, but the pride these people have in their home just blows me away.
[Sounds of New York City subway]
"Stand clear of the closing doors, please."
It’s about six months later, I’m on the subway in New York City. Gum stuck to everything. Sharpie marker scrawled all over the place. Screeching brakes. I’m pretty sure that guy over there is jacking off, but I don't want to investigate. Anyway this morning I was out of clean shirts, so I threw on my blue and red knockoff Independiente jersey. A guy points to my chest - an older man, Colombian, maybe 65 or 70.
“Where’d you get that?” he said.
And I said I went and watched and it was so cool to see a city with that much pride, and he gave me a high five and asked if they won.
I said, “No, no they got crushed by Nacional,” and he said “Oh, those motherfuckers.”
They kept it close until the half, though.
“Good on them,” he said.
“Good on them.”
[Theme Music Begins]
That was Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells.
I’m Will Conway.
One thing I didn't expect about launching this podcast is it's connected me with awesome, fascinating people all around the world. A few days ago, I got a note on Twitter from a woman named Kayan in Saudi Arabia. “I’m on the other side of the world," she says. "Where adventures like these are impossible. This show makes me feel like I’m there.”
Thank you Kayan.
On a lighter note, I want to give a huge shout-out. This big crew of oddball Irish folks, thank you for welcoming me. You guys catapulted Baggage Claim to #10 in Apple’s Places & Travel category in Ireland.
If you're so compelled, please text FRIEND to (332) 877-9540 to help me share this show far and wide [NOTE: you can do the same from the website by clicking here].
All right everyone. See you next Tuesday.
[Theme Music Ends]