Paraguay is a country of many languages. Spanish, firstly, the imported mother tongue and the very reason I find myself living in this curious, quirky land-locked nation. Guaraní is spoken commonly too, the indigenous dialect that has survived generations of conflict and repression. Then there is football, the universal language of love, an omnipotent force that conquers and divides.
I had previously thought of myself as being well-versed in this particular lingo – many years of following my beloved AFC Bournemouth across the country has seen innumerable highs and devastating lows, with explosions of adrenaline, crushing sadness, vitriolic anger and pulsating joy wrapped up into an intoxicating rollercoaster ride that never ends. It is these emotions, tied into an instinctive connection with a club, that guides the logic of football and its immense global popularity. The basic premise that if the ball goes in one net, you’re rather happy, and if it goes in the other, you’re not.
Just over a week ago, walking through the suffocating, humid, moonlit streets of Asunción, Paraguay’s capital, surrounded by fellow football fans heading home post-match, I realised I’d known nothing.
The story had started less than 48 hours ago. It had long been a desire of mine to see a South American football match, taking advantage of the unique opportunity of being on a year abroad in this particular part of the world. It just happened that the game available was the biggest derby in Paraguay, named the Superclásico (as if to suggest it was superior to the traditional, better-known Clásico), a clash between Olimpia and Cerro Porteño, an encounter graced in the past by footballing superstars such as Juan Iturbe and Roque Santa Cruz.
Having bought tickets for the equivalent of £5 (I opted not to fork out a tenner for the VIP option), myself and Hugo, a local friend and Olimpia supporter, were off to the match. It was perhaps a sign of things to come that even the travel to the match constituted an adventure – living deep in the Paraguayan countryside, we had to catch a five-hour bus northwards towards the capital. With the bus already full of passengers, that journey was spent stood up, clinging hopelessly to luggage racks and headrests as the bus flew along at a speed that was presumably not legal.
Yet we made it, and not long afterwards we were heading towards the ground, the Estadio Manuel Ferreira, a roofless, amphitheatre-esque construction with a capacity north of 20,000 that serves as Olimpia’s home ground. An Uber across the city, costing us £1 (such is the cost of living in one of South America’s poorest nations), got us close. The rest, owing to the immense police presence, was done by foot. Our route happened to walk straight past Olimpia’s ultras, banging their drums and building a quite formidable atmosphere. One of their members asked for a donation to support their work – we duly obliged, wary of what might happen if we refused.
Eventually we made it to the stadium, greeted by a spectacular sight. To the left us, hordes of stolen Olimpia shirts being sold for hilariously low prices; on the right, a military truck with two colossal water cannons mounted on the top, aiming somewhat menacingly towards us. The authorities obviously expected it to kick off. Mind you, it’s hard to blame them – in the reverse fixture earlier this season, a Cerro Porteño fan was stabbed to death in pre-match clashes between supporters.
It perhaps explained why on entering the ground, I was searched by a member of the Paraguayan military, whose barracks are conveniently positioned just a block away from the ground. Not your traditional football steward, and nor your traditional pre-match search. This particular chap, head to toe in khaki, took my belt away, obviously fearing I would use it as a weapon. It joined a bulging pile next to him, never to be seen again, and I was to spend the rest of the day constantly adjusting my jeans.
Within the perimeter, the pre-match atmosphere was utterly remarkable. Just under the stands, the most vociferous body of supporters was congregating. There appeared to be ultras, kids, families, and a full-on brass band, ready for their most important game of the season. The place stunk of cannabis, but also of anticipation, of fervour and of passion.
Football here is ferociously tribal. It is everything, and yet more. 45 minutes before kick-off, the entire stadium was bouncing in unison, singing songs about Olimpia’s historical successes and how Cerro fans are ‘todos putos’, a phrase perhaps best left untranslated. There were whistles and shrieks for the opposition, juxtaposed with elation and ecstatic roars for the home side. This was all before kick-off.
At 5pm local time, the players emerged and the place erupted. In the stand to my left, positioned behind the goal, the ultras, nicknamed the Mafia Negra, took their positions behind an array of tifos, banners and flags. Underneath them, a cauldron of smoke rose, almost covering the stand in its entirety. Through the curtain of smoke, I could make out dozens of flares, glowing bright and hot. Behind the stand, fireworks were let off, a piercing crack and shriek that lasted for five minutes or so. Around the ground, fans sung, bounced, clapped, and gesticulated in support. It was an immense cauldron of noise, like an ancient colosseum baying for blood in a gladiatorial battle.
The football, whilst not rich in quality, was equally gladiatorial in nature. Within 10 minutes of action there were 3 yellow cards, with all the hallmarks of a characteristically South American affair. Elbows flew, sly kicks were plentiful and hard-hitting challenges were greeted with euphoric, war-like cries. When a Cerro player fell to the floor clutching his face after a stray elbow, bottles were flung from the stands with impunity.
The situation was similarly gritty on the terraces. My particular stand was, essentially, a glorified concrete slab, an old-school terrace without any railings. It was also horrifically hot. The temperature was in the high-30s, with high, sticky humidity and not a breath of wind to be seen. There was also no shade, with the stand sat in direct sunlight. The white concrete of the stand also appeared to reflect the heat right back, creating a sauna-like sensation. All around me, the locals were dropping off like flies. Before long, my t-shirt was drenched, and I was cursing myself for not wearing shorts.
The heat seemed to have an impact on the football too. Drinks breaks were needed, and the game was played at a slow tempo. Chances were few and far between, but that did not stop the perpetual chanting, drumming, and bouncing of the crowd. Even at half time the fun didn’t stop.
The second half saw the sun begin to set in the sky, the temperatures drop (although still in the 30s), and the game open up. It culminated in the critical moment of the game, 87 minutes in.
An Olimpia forward made his way through on goal. At the same time, the Cerro keeper came rushing out, Harald Schumacher-esque, and clattered the forward outside the box. Bewilderingly, the referee gave a yellow card, but following a VAR review (operated better here than in the UK), a red card was awarded. A Cerro outfield player went in goal, and Olimpia prepared the free kick, scarcely outside of the penalty area. The stadium filled with tension and anticipation, everyone watching and ready.
Unfortunately, it was probably the worst free-kick I have ever seen in my life, sailing some 20 yards over the crossbar.
At the same time, things began to, as predicted, kick off. Between the Cerro fans, stood behind the opposite goal, and Olimpia fans nearby, there were two big explosions. ‘Granadas’, Hugo told me, rather worryingly. Immediately after, fans on either side ran away, clambering over seats and barriers to escape. Missiles were thrown, and riot police, probably numbering north of 100, ran into the away end, following the supporters down into the concourse, batons and shields raised.
The final whistle quickly followed. 0-0. Social media described it as the worst Superclásico in 20 years, but for me it was utterly fascinating. Hugo and I quickly left, seeking, as many others were, to avoid any violence. We headed through the streets of Asunción, eyes peeled and wary, with a new understanding of football and its significance. That day, it was a tribal war masquerading as sport.
Unfortunately, we would later learn that an Olimpia fan was shot by a Cerro supporter in ensuing clashes. Bob Shankley once famously quoted that ‘Some people think football is a matter of life and death…I can assure you it is much more serious than that’. For the people of Paraguay, and for the opposing supporters in the Superclásico, that’s an adage that rings all too true.
Image: Ben Pawlowski