A trip across the Andes and down the Amazon for a drab draw
“Occidente! Occidente!” cried a tout. “Occidente! Occidente!” cried another. It was the Peruvian equivalent of someone shouting, “West Stand! West Stand!” and waiving a pair of overpriced tickets in your face, right as you’re buying them from the ticket office. It’s a typical sales technique in Peru to try to sell you something you’ve already got or are in the process of getting. It’s not unusual to get out of a taxi and immediately hear the words “Taxi, amigo?” as another driver stands holding his door open. “Err… no, gracias.”
But the Occidente of the Estadio Max Augustín, home to the Peruvian Primera División team Colegio Nacional Iquitos, is the only stand completely sheltered from the roasting heat of the Amazon basin dry season. So the tickets were in demand.
Iquitos is remote. The only metropolitan city in Loreto, a region a little larger than Germany, it was founded by the Spanish in the 18th century as missionary outpost. It became the epicentre of the rubber boom of the following century and was flooded with European traders. Now a city of almost half a million people, for years it was known as the largest city in the world not connected to any roads. To get there you have to fly, or endure several days of bus rides over the Andes, followed by a three-day boat journey down the Río Marañón and the Amazon. Which is how I’d got there.
It was July 2010 and I’d been travelling around Peru since a few weeks before the World Cup had begun in South Africa. I was in Huaraz in the high Andes when it started. People gathered outside TV shops on the high street to watch the opening game between South Africa and Mexico. The Spanish version of Shakira’s “Waka Waka” became an inescapable soundtrack. It was the first World Cup I’d been away for. Having prided myself on watching almost every match since Italia 90, I’d had mixed feelings about missing so much of it. But it was my first time in Peru. I had exploring to do.
I saw Rob Green’s nightmare against the USA in a climbers’ hostel in Huaraz. I spared myself the embarrassment of the goalless draw with Algeria while trekking in the Cordillera Blanca, then watched Jermain Defoe’s winner against Slovenia while resting my mountain-weary legs in a bar in the coastal town of Huanchaco, the Pacific surf drowned out by the deafening drone of the vuvuzelas.
I watched England get knocked out by Germany in a windowless hotel room in Chachapoyas, having gone to the northern Andean city to visit the pre-Incan ruins that lie in the surrounding hills. I’d taken a bus from Cajamarca, where the last great Inca Atahualpa first confronted the Conquistador Francisco Pizzaro in 1532. The road from there to Chachapoyas led high into the mountains to a 3100m pass before descending in a helter-skelter of dizzying switchbacks all the way down to 975m and my first encounter with the Río Marañón.
The plunge in altitude brought an education in geography as the climate changed from elevation to elevation. Going from misty cloud forest into lush green pampas and then down into a cactus-scattered dustbowl was as wondrous as it was confusing.
The road rose once again through the layers of the Earth before levelling out at a narrow carriageway carved along the side of a high mountain ridge like a skirting board at 3000m. It peaked 700m later at a cold damp plateau called Abra Barro Negro, or Black Mud Pass.
As I sat in that cheap hotel room watching Frank Lampard’s goal being denied and England descend into familiar disappointment, I congratulated myself for picking adventure over football overdose. I’d certainly picked the tournament to miss.
The following day, after a three and a half hour bus journey over one last mountain, I found myself swinging in a hammock on the deck of a rusty old ferry boat heading down the Río Marañón for Iquitos.
The river had expanded since I’d last met it in the Andes. It was now a huge body of water the colour of cocoa, flanked by an endless green wilderness. By day I lay in my hammock, reading or gazing at the rainforest gliding by while black vultures patrolled the sky above the canopy.
In the evening when the sun dropped low and turned red the river became a shimmering reflection of the melting sky and the forest glowed a confused hue in the changing light, while the insect volume went up to eleven.
Below the two passenger decks were vehicles and below them were cattle. The bovine scent infused the long hot nights as the hammocks swayed in gentle unison. I pitied the late arrivals who could only find space below the neon lights and the plagues of insects.
Meal times onboard were interesting. At the first one I soon became aware that I was the only person standing in line not holding a tupperware container.
“Didn’t your taxi driver tell you to buy one at the port?” a French backpacker asked me. “My taxi driver said a lot of things and that may have been one of them,” I replied.
“Do you have a plate for me?” I asked the chef in broken Spanish. “Go to the shop,” he barked. But the shop had sold out so I cut a water bottle in two with my penknife and returned to the canteen. He seemed impressed with my makeshift crockery and gave me an extra big portion. That’s when I noticed the two dozen turtle shells stacked up at the back of the kitchen. I ate the rice and gravy around the pieces of turtle knuckle and resigned myself to the idea of being hungry for the next few days.
Meanwhile the World Cup rumbled on without me.
I heard the scores as soon as I got off the boat and onto the back of my friend Simon’s scooter. Simon had lived in Iquitos for five years. I was relieved to see a familiar face after five weeks travelling alone. “I’ve recorded the Holland v Brazil game for you and we should just get back in time to catch Uruguay and Ghana,” shouted Simon over the straining engine.
We watched as Uruguay won on penalties with Luis Suárez cheering from the sidelines after being sent of for handball. The World Cup just got interesting. Football came back into focus.
“Do you want to go and see CNI, the local team, play tomorrow?” asked Simon. “Too right,” I replied.
Walking into the Occidente of the Estadio Max Augustín I didn’t know what to expect. My previous images of South American club football had involved terrifying crowds at La Bombonera in Buenos Aires, the home of Boca Juniors, Flamengo playing in the Maracanã, flares, ultras and intimidating atmospheres. But my first experience of the Peruvian Primera División wasn’t so spectacular. Holding around 24,000, the stadium had just one fully sheltered stand, the Occidente, which was full. The rest of the stadium, scorching in the afternoon sun, was almost empty.
After the shock of seeing what appeared to be a teenage police officer in riot gear, holding a shotgun and staring at us from the side of the pitch, the stadium seemed quite jovial. Among the Peruvian families and couples were clusters of tourists and the atmosphere of people enjoying a day out. Simon wore a baseball cap to cover his hairless white head. “There’s no way I’m taking this off,” he said. “Last time I came here I spent the whole game with a thousand Peruvians shouting ‘pilacho’ at me.” Pilacho was the local slang for ‘baldy’ and taking a look around it wasn’t hard to see why. Baldness didn’t seem an issue among the jet black healthy-haired Amazonians. Simon’s large white dome must have stuck out like a snow ball in a coal pile.
The teams appeared to a round of applause, CNI in white and Huánuco, hailing from a city high in the Andes, in crimson. As the game kicked off, the noise from the crowd picked up a pantomime level of good humour while CNI started nervously passing the ball around. Huánuco soon took control to a chorus of boos from the Occidente. There was a gulf in class between the two teams that was hard to miss. Each time CNI got the ball into the middle of the park they looked clueless as to what to do with it, as if they’d only half learnt to play football. Huánuco on the other hand seemed a bit more like a proper football team. But neither side looked comfortable in the 35°C heat and 98% humidity
The painfully dull deadlock broke in the 34th minute. CNI had been desperately trying to keep possession. Their number 10, a stocky crate of a man called Juan Pablo Vergara, seemed to have more skill than the rest of the team combined. Unfortunately the other players were running around like headless chickens, darting forward on badly timed runs while displaying a geriatric level of ball control. One poorly placed pass gave way to a Huánuco break, a forward ran to the byline with a CNI defender in casual pursuit. He brushed aside the pedestrian full-back and passed the ball straight to the Colombian striker Luis Perea. The simple pass took out half the defence like they’d been sucked into a black hole. Perea’s first touch sent the rest the wrong way as he turned inside and slammed the ball into the bottom corner. Muted celebrations followed as the Iquitos fans booed. No Huánuco fans had made the 500-mile trip.
The next 10 minutes were possibly the most boring I have ever witnessed: two tired teams passing the ball around a sun-drenched pitch while a tepid crowd grew steadily less interested.
The spectators chatted among themselves, more support group than supporters group. Local girls stared at their phones or fingernails, yawning with boredom, while American tourists shouted about the worryingly cheap price of the hamburgers.
A few minutes before half-time a CNI player tumbled dramatically in the Huánuco penalty area. The referee pointed to the spot and the No 10 Vergara stood up. The crowd regained consciousness just in time to see him fluff the kick. Half-time couldn’t come quickly enough.
The second half kicked off to little fanfare. Huánuco kept the home side at bay like a cartoon bully holding a dwarf at arm’s length. Then just after the hour mark the game exploded.
What seemed like a perfectly good tackle by the goalscorer Perea was met with an instant red card from the referee. The crowd whooped and hollered, mocking the Huánuco star as he sloped off the field. It was hard to understand quite what he’d done. Chaos ensued as his teammates protested. Out came the red again and another Huánuco player walked. The away bench went ballistic and the referee marched over to wave another red card. No one quite knew who the latest victim was until the police escorted one of the coaches down the tunnel.
Five minutes later, Iquitos levelled. Hopelessly outmanned at a corner, Huánuco crumbled as a CNI defender clumsily scrambled the ball over the line. The twelfth man in black played his part to a tee. The Huánuco players trudged back to the centre circle with the look of innocent men condemned to the gallows.
Tempers flared both on and off the pitch. The next battle occurred as the subs tried to warm up on the running track. Perhaps bored of waiting for some hamburguesa-fuelled pitch invasion, some of the police took it upon themselves to force the subs back to the bench. A fight broke out. More police joined the melee then the coaches dragged the players back to the bench once the batons were drawn.
Then came another red card. Out of frustration or just a desire to get off the pitch, the languid Huánuco defender Guadalupe slid into a two-footed horror tackle and started walking before the referee had reached for his card, leaving just eight teammates on the pitch.
Wave after wave of CNI attacks followed. It was hard to see how Huánuco could hang on so outnumbered. But as much as they tried, CNI couldn’t score. Each time a chance came their way they were overpowered by some unnatural force. Maybe it was karma. In the dying minutes of the game Vergara found himself in sight of goal once more. But he seemed to be stuck in one of those awful dreams where you want to kick out but can’t and the chance went to waste.
When the final whistle blew the whole stadium seemed to sigh in relief. It was over. We could leave and get on with the rest of our lives. CNI had scraped a point. But they really didn’t deserve it.
A year later the club was relegated. Bankruptcy followed. They haven’t played competitive football since the 2012 Copa Peru.
A week after the game I watched the World Cup final in my room at the airport hotel in Lima – Spanish tiki-taka versus the most brutish Dutch team to grace the world stage. I nodded off after an hour and came to to see Iker Casillas holding the trophy aloft, “Waka Waka” playing full blast. I had a feeling I’d not missed much.