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a canadian in guatemala


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this is the longest post ever...

After watching our U-23 play such a crazed Guatemalan team during the 1999 Canada Cup games in Edmonton, I decided it would be a real journey to see where they come from first-hand. Although I wanted to make the long journey to Guatemala to see their showdown with the USA, a WCQqualifier with neighbor El Salvador was my second best option that better fit my work and school schedule. Because they border each other, it seemed to be a big event. I decided that I needed a new adventure in my life!

Strategically, I was in Guatemala City a few days early for a ten days trip. The airport was on the small side and had a "banana nation" charm to it with its surrounding mountains and tropical plants. I remember how overjoyed everyone was to meet at the airport as if they hadn't met for years. Immigration and Customs were very formal but after a short hesitation, I was waved through. Right away I noticed a military presence manned by young guys that I would later come to recognize as the part of the prevalent Mayan race of people - 80% are of this type. For sure less than 10% of the national team is Mayan.

Back to the airport, visitors were allowed to come into the terminal at a top level and look down but not to mingle with arriving passengers. For this reason, a large group of people stood directly outside the front doorway to greet their loved ones - many kisses and lots of hugs. Through this crowded area, I halfway expected to brush by a pickpocket like I heard are common in San Jose, Costa Rica but nothing happened - not yet. I hoped for a kiss or two but nothing also.

I thought it wise to choose a hotel just south of the stadium in an area called Reforma. Here I would find modern hotels, lively dance clubs, and upscale restaurants where the meat was delicious and in very large portions. I was pleased to hear that I was almost within walking distance of "Olympic City" and the soccer stadium. Every bar seemed like a sports bar. Although it has been four years now, I can clearly remember the unique atmosphere and associated feeling from an open-aired restaurant at night in such a different corner of the world.

I can also clearly remember the faces of the not so fortunate crowd outside standing in the wonderful smell of the restaurants. There was much poverty here and all over the country. It reminded me of the news from Haiti and I later found that Guatemala is the second poorest country in Canada's hemisphere. On my TV, I watched some local footage of bus price riots and the looting that followed. It was interesting to note that when a bunch of street children threw a sign post through a sporting goods store window, the first items they ran out with were the soccer balls and turf shoes followed by the less popular baseball and basketball stolen goods.

Although now it seems foolish to buy my ticket as late as I did, for some reason at the time I was content shopping for a good ticket price. I can remember enjoying how different and interesting everything was and that I wasn't going to be disappointed with my trip even if I had to miss the game! I was told repeatedly to wait and buy tickets the day before the game from the scalpers and so I did.

Instead of using the expatriate English speaking crowd, I gathered my information from the English speaking locals that I found. One said he would rather not go because there are too many outlets for violence at a game of such magnitude. I was fortunate to find another new Guate friend who had a brother that could tell us how to obtain tickets and get to the stadium on game day.

I happened to be out in an area that seemed suburban when I caught my first taste of the soccer excitement. The game weekend started with the Shell station across the street playing loud music on the night before. I was already excited about finding a way to get to the game and while the music played I was weighing my opportunities.

Saturday night I left the comfort and safe feeling of my room to travel down to the "Olympic City" and see what it was like to buy tickets. With an English speaking Guatemalan that worked at the local American School, I was on my way. We found that scalpers had bought around half of the available tickets. The areas along the street were better lighted than I anticipated and the crowds included some women selling shirts, headbands, and flags and also somewhat safe looking people.

To authenticate my trip, I bought a couple Guatemala blue headbands and an authentic "atletica brand" jersey #15 Juan Carlos Plata for only ten dollars! I wanted a Martin Machon that played for the now defunct Miami Fusion but couldn't find my size. Fredy Garcia #11 was the big seller. I would later find out that he was considered the future, more so than Ruiz.

There was some question about which tickets were genuine and also some price adjusting. We ended up paying 70 Quatzales each for "preferencia" tickets. "Tribuna" were going to cost around 200 Q each and "general" were out of the question! Don't ask me how many dollars that is but I know I didn't want to pay the highest price. I expected to be putting myself in a dangerous situation on that ticket buying trip and was surprised with how well it went. Yes, I wore Guatemalan blue to the game. Sorry about that but I considered it a life or death choice of clothes. Right now the USA posts a travel warning for people who would look like they are on vacation here. As I think more about my trip, I realize that I was lucky to safely buy my ticket that night.

As we got closer to the Olympic City, the crowds picked up. Right after we passed the walls of the Stadium I caught a glimpse out the bus window of "La Limonada" as its shacks stretched down both sides of a deep ravine - one of the roughest areas of the City. A reminder like this of the type of neighborhood I would be exposed to was not necessary because I was already expecting the unexpected and within the next minute we were in Zone 1 where anything could probably happen. From the start, I had decided to just enjoy myself and, anyway, I was too entertained with the game events to spend much time being overly cautious.

We were advised to get to the game 3 hours early but instead decided to arrive just 2 hours early. The city bus system was our transportation because cars would be unsafe to park near the stadium. I didn?t see any parking lots. Even when we first got on the bus, there were fans going to the game. As we got close to the Olympic City, the crowds picked up. There were more people enjoying the excitement and just around the stadium than people with tickets. We walked about five blocks from the south end of city areas called Zone 1 into Zone 5 serving as a parade with other "game goers" for people to watch. I was surprised to see a few El Salvadorean buses. I wondered if they were feeling like the type of "duck out of water" feeling that I was.

There probably were more people enjoying the excitement and just lingering around the stadium than people with tickets. We walked about five blocks from the south end of Zone 1 into Zone 5 serving as a "parade" for people to watch as we walked along with other ticket holders. There were two policemen stationed together along the streets every fifty feet. I was surprised to see that the two countries' fans were kind of walking together. We "just kept going", not knowing what to expect next, and arrived around an hour early. My new Guatemalan friend seemed just as anxious as I was.

The stadium Mateo Flores is named after the Guatemalan man who won the Boston Marathon in the sixties and lives in Mixco, a poor poor poor indigenous suburb of Guate that I also visited. Two walls surrounded the stadium with checkpoints at each and also checks before fans entered their seating section. My ticket had 3 perforations for each security check. I was frisked just twice but most people three times. I think I noticed four different types of security officials.

It was comforting to see the El Salvador fans placed somewhat safely in an area of the stadium between the high-ticket price Guate crowd and one of the towering fences that separated the potentially dangerous general admission fans from the rest of us. Two of these fences at each of the Stadium's ends kept these craziest fans caged into the "end zone seats" and left to deal with each other. A large fence also surrounded the entire field. Every fence was topped with spirals of barbed wire. For safety reasons, Estadio Mateo Flores holds around 30,000. On one corner of the general admission section was a large sign remembering the 88 people that were killed in an international game two years ago - it read "Sector Octubre 16".

For the dry season, the field was in great shape. It looked as if they made some recent improvements because one of the big concrete walls outside the Stadium was somewhat clean and most of the Stadium had a fresh coat of paint. Even the track was brand new and very nice. Among these improvements were also the usual Guate City emission soot covered walls and sidewalks, and also trash accumulating on the ground from the concentrated crowds of today and days past. People were excited and face painting was free. I said "no thanks, uh,no gracias".

Although we sat in a safer section, we had ten riot police in our aisle with belts of tear gas canisters, big rifles, big shields and thick flack jackets. By the time we entered the seating area it was one hour from game time. Nine tenths of the crowd were in place so we had to sit low in kind of "fiesta" seating but we could still see OK and had some empty seats and an emergency exit to the field in front of us. It was a warm day for April and the sun was hot but not terribly uncomfortable. I waited most of the game for the sun to go behind a couple skyscrapers and by the time it did I was getting cold.

The vendors were selling cans of Pepsi from five gallon buckets of ice in which they would set down near a policeman and then get "mobbed". I bought three and waited patiently for each of them. The Red Cross was also handing out water at our emergency gate. It was entertaining to have the general admission section not too far away through the fence to our right. To the playful disgust of many, a few El Salvador faithful moved into the high seats behind us, but other than that, our seating location was OK.

An exhibition game of sub 18 year olds from the two countries was already underway and the Guate crowd seemed pleased when this game ended in a tie. I thought about what the fan reaction might have been with a tie in Canada. In anticipation to the main event, sections of the crowd sang, chanted, moved in unison, and enjoyed entertaining each other. The first traditional ceremony was an army of riot police surrounding the field apparently just to show the crowd that they were there.

It seemed the second event was unexpected. The entire "National Selection Team" of Guate came out of the tunnel and ran to corners of the field to toss their jerseys into the seats. People were ecstatic and it just happened to be near my section where a jersey landed on the spiraled barbed wire around the playing field. Determined fans pulled at it until the barbed wire was pulled off the fence and to the side. After two abbreviated versions of national anthems and each team's official pre-game unity photo, all the proceedings were taken care of. As it turned out, the game officials were from soccer power Mexico, so the only ritual left was to make sure that they knew they were being called "mulas" (mules) and then it was time to play.

We had heard that here right before the game some players get tears in their eyes when they realize the magnitude of playing for their country. It turned out that Fredy Garcia?s tears were from a bad case of the flu and that he would play but with a high fever. His brilliance was a step off the entire game from what I saw of him on my TVs pre-game highlights. According to my friend, there was still a lot of thrilling action, some physical play but good sportsmanship, and evidence for hope in their future.

Game Summary: although Guate had four or five shots on goal and the game was played mainly at mid field or with Salvadorian players backed up, Guate lost 0-1. A few items were thrown and five fires burned inside the Stadium from goal celebrations that never were. They now have only a slim outside chance of qualification for 2002. I am always rooting for underdogs and especially pulling for an underdog if I feel a connection in some way like these people sitting next to me and so felt it was unfortunate for Guate to be faced with another four year wait to qualify for World Cup play.

The biggest obstacle any country could face is the reality that they are a small poor country where only a small percentage of the population ever gets to find out if they have athletic ability because from a young age most have to spend long days working for their food and shelter - and, I am told, be able to the afford transportation to their place of work. They love soccer but it is a nation that does not lend itself to fielding a good team.

As we looked out the bus window at faces filing away from the Stadium and down the streets, the depth of their despair was apparent. A national soccer game in a third world latino country is an unforgettable experience.

That time around, they ended up playing Costa Rica in a tie-breaker and lost while Costa Rica edged them out for Korea-Japan. This time around, their soccer federation was smart in hiring a coach that knew Honduras well, the team they thought they would have to beat to advance. He in turn was smart to make the most uncontrollable and uncoachable talent his team captain.

Back again four years during my time in Guatemala, I took a trip on an express bus to the Caribbean coast to visit the city of now team captain, Guillermo Ramirez. I was curious about this place because the 5 to 8 thousand black population lived predominately in two towns found here. As one arrives into the first city, Puerto Barrios, they are greeted by a monument of the black banana plantation worker. His back seemed a little bent. The other of these two towns, named Livingston, was like a Spanish Jamaica. There are no roads to Livingston and Puerto Barrios is where most people catch a boat.

It took some time to get to this place - 2 hours from Antigua (a beautiful colonial city where I felt the most comfortable) to the bus station in the capital, a half an hour wait and then 5 hours to Puerto Barrios, and hour wait and then a half an hour across the Bay to Livingston.

As I stepped off my water taxi, I saw a basketball court and dogs sleeping in the middle of the street. When I asked where the soccer fields were, I found there was only one a few kilometers outside of town. I was amazed that so small a black population was so well represented on the national team - at least 6 players. I walked the street to visit the hotel where Captain Ramirez worked carrying luggage to rooms. I saw the cement stairway where he must have built his muscle. I wondered if Guatemala aficionados made the same pilgrimage that I was making. As my thoughts drifted back to Canada, I realized that we are a world away or even farther from this small corner of the world.

Back in Livingston, Sunday evening I noticed the breeze picking up and I decided to watch the boats for awhile. I walked down to sit on the steps leading from the olympic size pool down to the lawn of palm trees in front of the water and there I sat for around three hours! It was so wonderful. It was already getting dark and the fisherman where calling it a day when I sat down. By the time I left, the Sea was only visible by the moon's light. I have always enjoyed the breeze on a Summer night but never experienced anything like this.

I didn't know I kept track of this but I noticed that I slept entire night for the first time in four months. It was the first time in my life that I ever got up just to watch the sunrise. At 5:00 in the morning most of the dogs didn't even bother to lift their heads from the street as I walked by and greeted them. The rasta-like fisherman were already up and kind women were walking to work. I happened to encounter the best weather that I can ever remember experiencing here. It was so special but I was told it was a normal for each evening.

I heard from a friend that works in the office for mls Columbus Crew that Carlos Ruiz is the nicest guy you could ever meet - off the field. Everyone is surprised to hear that. I also heard that when Ruiz was a kid, he lived in a poor city housing zone and had to share his shoes with two other friends. With all the diesel "chicken" bus fumes and compacted dirt soccer fields, I don't know how they field a team.

Seriously, we have more soccer fields in Windsor than they have in their capital city where half the population lives.

They want to and are about four of five injuries from calling this year's team "the Guatemalan dream team". When talents like Fredy Garcia, Denis Chen, and Nestor Martinez are fit again, they could take their game to the next level - to the Cup. but what odds they have.

They probably deserve it more than us. I am cheering for Canada. Thanks for reading.

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