Universitario 3 (Chávez 62′, Torres 74′, Guastavino 84′) beat Sporting Cristal 0 at El Monumental, Lima, crowd ~20,000, Primera División Peruana, 3 August 2013.
“Tenga cuidado,” the cab driver said as he stopped at a police barricade about a kilometre from Lima’s Estadio Monumental, like a concerned parent dropping off their kid for his first day of kindy. Having spent the prior 30 minutes giving me a colourful introductory lesson to ‘Peruvian Football 101’ – a conversation that drifted in to the realms of Australian relatives (a koala key ring decorated the driver’s keys courtesy of a cousin in Melbourne) and the inscrutability of the Argentine accent (old mate used to live in Buenos Aires) – the cabbie’s tone turned serious once we reached the shadow of the stadium. ‘Walk straight to your gate, don’t flash your camera around, keep your wallet hidden, and take care’. Thanks, dad.
His caution wasn’t misplaced, judging by the small army of police deployed to maintain order. I wasn’t exactly expecting sunshine and lollipops after the ticket saleswomen at the Miraflores Metro supermarket told me to leave my belt at the hostel, because the policemen who frisk supporters upon entry confiscate cinturones in case they’re used for something other than suspending trousers. But the tension doesn’t quite sink in until you reach the stadium itself – set against a backdrop of ominous clouds and armed soldiers, located in a sketchy part of a town racked by internal violence at the hands of Peru’s Shining Path Communists – where a blond gringo standing two foot taller than the diminutive locals sticks out like the dog’s proverbials.
The significance of the match added to the intensity: el clásico moderno between Universitario and Sporting Cristal. Not Peru’s most heated rivalry – Alianza and La U take that particular cake – but a clash between two clubs boasting Peru’s most well populated trophy cabinets in recent years. Sporting Cristal, as my cabbie explained, is a club empresarial in the mould of Monaco or Man City or PSG, except instead of Qatari cash funding the operation, it’s beer money. Indeed, the chequebook belongs to the Cristal brewery that gives its name to the club and, ironically, its sponsorship dollars to Universitario, whose famous cream camisetas carry the brewer’s name. Imagine Canterbury or Souths running around against Newcastle with ‘Hunter Sports Group’ embossed on their chest (if Nathan Tinkler still had two dollars to rub together, that is).
On the walk to the ground, police segregate the two sets of supporters on either side of the road, like an enormous recycling plant filtering La U‘s beige from Sporting’s sky blue, reproducing the visual effect of Wembley Way with none of the charm. The route was lined with giant metal fences topped by barbed wire – a Peruvian homage to Silverwater Prison, perhaps – and vendors selling the standard fare of scarves, bucket hats and knock-off tops. None of them receive nearly as much attention as a TV journalist who gambled on performing a live cross amongst the mischievous fans, who proved that boneheading isn’t a uniquely Australian phenomenon.
Within a minute of entering the stadium, I encountered two things I’d never seen before: police using breathalysers to weed out any borrachos who might have indulged in one too many Cristals, and people offering to clean your seat for a tip. ‘How dirty could they be?’ I mused, with a Scrooge-like grip on my nuevos soles, a decision I came to regret once my chinos – a fetching khaki pair that matched La U‘s colour scheme – had been stained black on the posterior.
The nearby press pack was better prepared, sitting on plastic bags as they scribbled their notes in the outer, an increasingly difficult task as a light drizzle began falling in the late afternoon. The stadium – an 80,000 seat behemoth ringed with six layers of corporate boxes but apparently no room for the scribes – was only a quarter full, although the 20,000 or so made quite the racket.
La U‘s home end – Trinchera Norte – populated the north terrace, where the thousands of fans that trickled in before kickoff slowly covered the giant ‘U’ painted on the concrete. Their cream and burgundy flags made them look like St. George/Indonesia/Poland supporters in need of a good wash, not totally implausible given the layer of silt on the seats that had made its way onto my trousers.
The visiting fans – numbering around 5,000, and contributing their share of the noise that bounced off the halo of corporate boxes surrounding the arena – entered in a rush, to the whistles of the home fans. They unfurled a gigantic pullover – a colossal celeste number big enough to blanket the entire terrace – before setting up their banners, which confusingly turned every ‘U’ into a ‘V’ and every ‘A’ into an ‘∀’ to avoid using the emblematic letters of their rivals Universitario and Alianza, at the expense of legibility.
The players – who could politely be described as ‘pint-sized’ – were further dwarfed by the gargantuan stadium, now South America’s largest courtesy of the Maracanã’s World Cup redevelopment. Universitario were desperate to notch their first win over Sporting in 10 attempts, and avenge the 4-nil spanking Cristal meted out the last time they met, and the cream-clad charges zipped around the pitch like Energizer bunnies dressed as Richie Benaud in his trademark cream/off-white/bone/ivory/beige.
The first stanza was packed full of the ill-tempered rancour typical of South American football, the kind of niggle exaggerated whenever the word ‘clásico‘ is floating around. Cristal’s Uruguayan mediocampista Jorge Cazulo – a defensive midfield terrier who treats the rules of the game with an indifference that would make Kevin Muscat blush – was lucky to stay on the pitch in a half that produced six yellows but no goals, despite La U‘s marked dominance.
While Trinchera Norte created a fearful din at the north end, Las Cremas peppered the southern goal. It didn’t take long for the magnificently named Diego Armando Chávez – whose birth certificate bound him to a career in either football or socialism – to open the scoring, by blasting over the goalkeeper’s head just after the hour mark. The mohawked 20-year-old, heady with confidence after netting his first career goal at such a crucial moment, fluffed an ambitious volley 10 minutes later only for it to fall in the lap of Rainer Torres, a toothy Peruvian with a receding hairline who took great delight in netting the second goal against his former club. ‘Chew-nil‘, as Australia’s most decorated wearer of cream clothing might say.
Torres – who had turned in a good shift for a bloke with about as much hair as John Howard – was subbed minutes later, and his replacement Diego Guastavino wasted no time adding a third, the result of a solo run that slalomed from deep inside his own half to the edge of the box, where he launched a tracer bullet into the back of the net. He picked up a yellow for removing his shirt in a wild celebration with his immaculately coiffed coach Ángel Comizzo, South America’s answer to the ever stylish Joachim Löw (‘Jogi’ to his mates). Comizzo’s Cristal counterpart Roberto Mosquera cut a disappointed figure in the opposing dugout, the corpulent manager resembling a black Darren Lehmann on the Lord’s balcony, watching his side commit the footballing equivalent of being rolled for 128 against the old enemy.
When Universitario’s third goal hit the net, the neighbouring journos – showing about as much objectivity as Alan Jones during an election campaign – howled maniacal cackles of laughter, knowing the three points would catapult La U above Cristal into second place, and expunge the memories of the 4-nil massacre in April. The visiting Celeste fans were doing their best to keep reminding them, however, with a barely readable banner mocking the ‘∀B∀N4-0NO’ (abandono, or abandonment) of their team during that infamous spanking. The Cristal fans were making a deliberate point of staying – and singing – until the referee put them out of their misery. Admirable, but scant consolation in the wake of a performance as dirty as the Monumental’s seats.
The sun doesn’t really set in Lima, rather, the city is gradually blanketed by a thick shroud of smog that descends slowly, making an inhospitable neck of the woods even more menacing, and hastening my return to the comfort of genteel Miraflores. On my way to the airport the following evening I enjoyed the company of another effusive cab driver, this time a Kanye West doppelgänger who had copied Michael Jackson’s Thriller hairdo strand-for-strand. When I told him I was Australian, he boasted how Alianza’s boom striker Yordy Reyna had been signed by Red Bull Salzburg before I politely explained the difference between ‘Austria’ – as in schnitzels, skiing, and The Sound of Music – and ‘Australia’ – as in kangaroos, Vegemite, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Of course, as an Alianza hincha, the cab-driving Kanye insisted his mob were the biggest club in Peru, but he had to admit that La U‘s 3-nil demolition job was impressive. Certainly a good day for the men in the cream, the off-white, the bone, the ivory, and the beige. Marvellous effort, that.