Thursday, 19 June 2014

Ground 234: Estadio Profesor Alberto Suppici, Colonia del Sacramento

An hour across the River Plate from  Buenos Aires, the tiny port town of Colonia del Sacramento has sandy beaches, tile-and-stucco colonial architecture, Uruguay's oldest church, a cobblestoned centre and a lower-league football team founded by the brother of a World Cup winning coach. Put it this way, it didn't take much arm twisting to get me there. 

Just over a week until kick-off in Brazil and one day before the national squad plays its final pre-departure friendly, the domestic league resumes with the quarter finals of the second-tier promotion play-offs.  Plaza Colonia - tenth of fourteen clubs in the regular season but still chasing their first top-flight place since 2005 - host Deportivo Maldonado, who finished the 26-game league campaign seven places and six points better off.

Better off in other ways, too.  Since 2011 Maldonado - average crowd roughly 218 -  have earned over $14 million trading players to European clubs.  Willian José, winner of an U20 World Cup with Brazil and a Copa Sudamerica at Sao Paulo, moved from Maldonado to Real Madrid, his national teammate Alex Sandro to Porto and Paraguay's Marcelo Estigarribia to Juventus on a season long loan.  Although none of the three had ever turned out for the Uruguayan club, their status as Maldonado players meant the sales tax dropped by as much as 75% compared to trading directly out of Brazil or Argentina.  "Damaging tax avoidance," the Argentinian authorities call it.  Deportivo operates “in exactly the same way as any professionally run football club,” counters Malcolm Caine, a British businessman who bought out the previously member-owned organisation in 2010 together with Graham Shear, a London-based lawyer who represented Kia Joorabchian's MSI group during the inquiry into Carlos Tevez's move to West Ham. “Our investment includes infrastructure, managerial, technical know-how, medical and other facilities as well as player development, training and player transfers,” Caine told Bloomberg by email.   Uruguay's 'ghost deals' -  over $70 million in transfer fees were routed through nine clubs between 2000 and 2011 - have now attracted FIFA's attention, with four Argentinian sides fined in March for their part in trades with Montevideo's Atletica Sud America "that were not of a sporting nature", while the Uruguayan government raised the tax on player transfers from 4 to 12.5% last year in an attempt to curb the flow of registrations through its domestic league.

 Things are much lower key at the ground itself, with no more than a couple of hundred supporters and a two-man press team inside by the time the sides emerge on to the pitch.  The away side limber up by doing shuttle runs between their team coach and the river, a pair of riot policemen greeting acquintances with kisses as they don shields and helmets nearby.  The home fans drink mate and dress in wooly hats and hoods despite it being the kind of day which would see English supporters don shorts and t-shirts and go topless before half time.  The loudest handful group together behind the goal accompanied by two drums, four flags and a stray dog.

The opening half drones by in a hail of aerial balls and whistles, the fussy refereeing soon attracting the ire of everyone in the crowd.  Moldonado have a couple of set pieces and an offside header turned around a post; Plaza run a lot but get no closer to a goal than the corner flag.  Long before the interval the substitutes are lined up, swapping gossip and high kicking to the right of the bench.

The second forty-five starts with a firecracker and an elderly coach setting off at Fun Run pace to retrieve a lost ball.  He's only halfway back when Moldonado break quickly, 2013 Peruvian league title winner Miguel Ximenez enticing the keeper away from goal before smashing into the corner. "Gol!" comes the throaty roar from the visitors' section. "Get moving," a home fan screams at the substitutes.  Plaza make a double switch, the crowd swells by a dozen or so as a neighbouring school empties, but the linesman's flag denies them twice as Moldonado hold out for a comfortable win. Four days later, Plaza score twice in the away leg to progress to a semi-final with Rampla Juniors.  "An inexplicable defeat," the loser's website says.  It's a word which defines much about Deportivo Moldonado. 

Date: June 3rd 2014
Admission: 150 Uruguayan pesos (under £5)

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Football Art: On the Streets of Sao Paulo

Every four years, from around a week before the World Cup gets underway, the people of Rua Fradique Coutinho begin to paint their street.

A sticker album provides the template for the adults to chalk outlines across the road.  The Brazil flag is in the centre, filling both lanes.  On one side is Fuleco, the colourful armadillo chosen as the competition mascot, and the badge of the Brazilian Football Federation.  To the other is the tournament emblem and flags of all 32 competing nations.  "It's the World Cup so it's only right to include everyone," one resident tells me.

The artwork is a community enterprise. "We let the kids paint when they're over 5," says a man in a Brazil shirt directing cars around the top of the national flag.  "It's how we all started.  Now the adults do the outlines and keep everything safe from traffic."  The murals are finished one side of the road at a time, two plastic chairs tied with string controlling movement on this busy Vila Madalena street. Drivers manoeuvre respectfully around the paintings, many blowing horns and shouting encouragement to the children working on the ground.  Other residents paint kerbstones and walls, string yellow and green bunting between trees or sit looking on from an open-front bar with a TV screen showing rolling football news and World Cup warm-up matches.  "You'll see these all over Sao Paulo's poorer neighbourhoods," says photographer and local fixer Caio Vilela. "When I was their age we used to paint on any communal wall we could find.  You really felt the World Cup was on its way."

On a neighbouring street we find Brazil flags strung across gates and car bonnets above a giant Fuleco image.  Families congregate outside, streetlights illuminating  the murals in what has become one of Sao Paulo's most fashionable locations.  "This is the only place in Brazil I've seen street signs warning cars to slow down because children are playing football," Vilela remarks.  "It's a remnant of the old Vila Madalena.  Nowadays you have the upper middle classes in high rise buildings, restaurants, film companies and art workshops.  That's why there's always so much paint around."

"This is what the tournament should be about," observes Spirit of Football's Andrew Aris as artists young and old break off work to pass around a ball that's travelled through 25 countries and over 17,000 hands on its way from Battersea Park, London, the cradle of modern football, to the streets of the country that, more than any other, is the beating heart of the game. "But the people who make football come far behind the chance to make money nowadays.  Money that could have been spent on them but that they'll never see."  On cracked tarmac, out of sight of FIFA's preferential lanes, unfinished stadia, exclusion zones and five-star hotels, the essence of the game endures where it began and always remained: on an open patch of ground, with shared endeavour and that simple, instinctive pleasure - irrspective of gender, nationality, class, caste, creed, colour, age, intellect or ability - that humans derive from moving a ball between feet.

Brazilian street football and neighbourhood art remains free in Sao Paulo and hundreds of other host cities throughout the FIFA World Cup.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Ground 233: Estadio Centenario, Montevideo

The streets of Montevideo were unusually quiet on the afternoon of July 30th 1930.  An official attendance of 93,000 was recorded inside the city's Estadio Centenario for the first World Cup final, although the stadium was already full two hours before kick off and thousands more travelling supporters either arrived late or missed the game altogether due to fog and congestion at the port.

The Centenario - the name a nod to the hundred years since Uruguay's first constitution - had been purpose built for the tournament in nine months, it's rain-delayed opening meaning eight of the competition's eighteen fixtures - and all of the opening three - were played at the nearby Parque Central, home of Nacional, and Penarol's Estadio Pocitos, which was demolished a decade later.   Built on old grazing land and designed by Juan Antonio Scasso, two of the Centenario's tribunes, Amsterdam and Columbes, were named after the cities where Uruguay's footballers had earned Olympic gold medals in 1924 and 1928.  Thirteen countries had agreed to take part in FIFA's new competition, three of the four European entrants - Belgium, Romania and France - travelling for a fortnight on the same ship, picking up the Brazil team on the way, and welcomed by 10,000 Uruguyans when they finally arrived.  In the absence of rivals England, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain,  Uruguay and neighbours Argentina - beaten finalists after a replay in the 1928 Olympics - were favourites to lift the Goddess of Victory trophy.

And now here they both were in the final itself, the Argentineans departing Buenos Aires to cries of 'Victory or Death!'  Pablo Dorado put the hosts ahead, Carlos Peucelle and Guillermo Stabile reversing the advantage before half time.  Uruguay, thought a local newspaper, "suffered a thousand deaths" before Pedro Cea's 57th minute equaliser. Santos Iriarte smashed in from 25 yards nine minutes later, and Hector Castro - left with only one hand after a childhood accident with an electric saw - headed a fourth from Dorado's cross.  Back in Buenos Aires women carrying Uruguayan flags were stoned and the country's consulate was attacked, mounted police discharging revolvers as they fought to drive the protesters back.

Tonight's game promised to be a more sedate affair, Northern Ireland the visitors in a friendly arranged as one of two World Cup warm-up matches before La Celeste sets off for Brazil.  The Centenario's elliptical stands are almost full, its famous 98-metre Art Deco tower glittering under floodlights.  Despite showing signs of its age - open to the elements, the bucket seats are dirt-spattered, cracked or ripped out entirely leaving many in the crowd sitting on stone steps while the executive boxes are more reminiscent of Kenilworth Road than Wembley - the stadium oozes character and scale, the view from the back of the Tribuna Amsterdam soliciting a genuine "Wow" as I make it to the top of the steps. From the back wall - so low you can bend at the waist and hang over the top of the stadium - thousands are still snaking across the dirt ground waiting to get inside.

Drums rat-a-tat, trumpets flourish and a dance band sambas in a corner, the colours reflected in a moat separating the supporters from the pitch.  The crowd respectfully claps the end of God Save the Queen, playfully whistles the scoreboard display of the visiting side then roars expectantly as Diego Forlan and Edinson Cavani get proceedings underway.  The pitch, slicked by a few hours' drizzle, suits Uruguay's fast interplay but the Irish dig in and press the halfway line, restricting space and heralding the first attempts at a Mexican wave a mere 15 minutes into the game.  The only noise - abuse for the referee excepted - comes from vendors touting churros, crisps and Coca Cola.

Uruguay - unofficial world champions since defeating old rivals Argentina in October - 
finally rouse the crowd on half an hour, Cavani and then Forlan drawing a stunning double stop from Roy Carroll, who ends up clattering a post while turning the second shot away for a corner. Forlan's replaced at the end of an underwhelming forty-five minutes, Espanyol's Christian Stuani the replacement as Oscar Tabarez tries out alternatives to the injured Luis Suarez.  It's the substitute who finally breaks the deadlock, Cristian Rodriguez's slaloming run opening up space for Cavani, whose dinked pass finds Stuani in front of goal.  "Uruguay, Uruguay," the Amsterdam belts out.  It's a sound, form, luck and Luis Suarez's fitness permitting, which might yet rumble all the way across Brazil.

Anticipation is bubbling on the streets of Montevideo, with national flags replacing election posters in shop windows on the Avenida 18 de Julio.  "People are massively excited," UK ambassador Ben Lyster-Binns tells me.  "There's a huge amount of affection for English football here, especially with Suarez doing so well at Liverpool.  The dream scenario is that we both go through, though if England win nobody will want to speak to me for at least a week."  "There are many obstacles in our way," captain Diego Lugano had told a pre-match press conference, "but nothing can take away our dreams."

Date:  Friday 30th May 2014
Admission:  150UYU (about £4.60)