To say soccer is important to Uruguay is like saying Facebook is important to a teenager. It’s a massive understatement. Watching, talking about, or playing soccer is like breathing here; it happens all day everyday. And ever since Uruguay made it to the semi-finals in the World Cup last year, Uruguayans are prouder than ever of their soccer capabilities (As well they should be since they were the 2nd smallest country in the Cup by a significant margin). At any given time, you can walk past a chiviterìa or bar or tienda or kiosk and without a doubt a soccer game will be playing with a herd of males catatonically staring at the screen. Most nights, I walk into my apartment building to find our doorman loyally listening to a game on his small, battery-powered radio. Soccer, more so than mate, is the lifeblood of most Uruguayans.
To those of you who know me, this is absolutely nothing new, but I ADORE major, organized sporting events where entire communities rally behind their teams- primarily the Olympics and the World Cup. I go bananas over them. In college, I skipped an entire week of class to watch the curling finals of the Winter Olympics. As I am selectively technophobic and don’t have DVR, if I missed any moment of the primetime Olympic coverage, I stayed up until 2am to watch the replay. During the 2010 Winter Olympics, I created 2 weeks worth of “Los Olìmpicos” (Olympic-centered activities) for my Spanish classes. I would literally force my students to talk with me about the Olympics everyday. And since 2010 was a double whammy for international sporting events, I got to go bananas over the World Cup in South Africa 4 months later. I was in DC for the first time since 1st grade during the Cup, and although I took a stroll around the Mall, my main activity was planting myself in front of the TV and watching back to back games. My purpose for being in DC was actually to attend a Fulbright orientation conference. It was probably positive foreshadowing that I was with my fellow Uruguayan Fulbrighters while we snuck out of our conference workshops to the bar of the hotel to watch Uruguay win game after game. Ok. I’ve made my point. I like high stakes sporting events, and skip important obligations to watch them. Therefore, I have fully embraced the soccer obsession here. For Uruguayans, every game is high stakes.
And almost more important than the game itself is what team you pledge your undying allegiance to. Nothing is more definitive or divisive than your soccer team. I can honestly say, without exaggeration, that in every Uruguayan class I have visited I have been asked, “Què prefieres, Peñarol o Nacional?”/ “Who do you prefer, Peñarol or Nacional?” The two most popular teams in Uruguay with the fiercest rivalry are Peñarol (black and yellow) and Nacional (white, blue and red). There is no comparison in the US to match the heated rivalry between the two teams. Yankees-Red Sox, Lakers-Celtics, Duke-UNC, Jon Stewart-Bill O’Reilly seem like petty catfights in comparison to the epic war that persists between Peñarol and Nacional. March Madness, the Super Bowl and the World Series have nothing on these two teams. So, who you cheer for is a BIG deal. It divides families, breaks up relationships, dictates who your friends are. It wouldn’t surprise me if on a few divorce documents the reason for separation it stated “Peñarol Fan”. Almost synonymous with the Uruguayan flag, you will see a Peñarol or Nacional flag proudly waving outside someone’s residence.
As I’m not a complete moron, when asked who I cheer for I remain neutral. a) I’m not in the position to alienate anyone as I have about 5 friends here, b) I don’t want to be punched, and c) Up until recently, I didn’t really know the difference between the two teams. The past few weeks I’ve made it my mission to find out. What’s the difference between Peñarol and Nacional? What makes one so much better than the other? Why should I root for Peñarol or Nacional? When I’ve asked the high school classes, this unequivocally results in chaotic screaming and vehemence for the opposing side. It has, however, given me pretty clear, consistent results. This is what I’ve found:
Peñarol: Is the team of the working class, and at least in Montevideo, has two to three times as many fans as Nacional. Their fans are loud, passionate, bellicose, and ALWAYS the first to tell me why I should pledge my undying allegiance to Peñarol. Kind of like less obnoxious, tolerable Yankees or Phillies fans. When I revealed to some students that my high school, my university, and my last teaching gig in the US all were black and yellow, it was like a bomb went off in the classroom. It was absolute boisterous mayhem and rejoicing from all the Peñarol students. On any Peñarol game day, I don’t have to be watching the match to know when Peñarol makes a goal. I can hear my neighbors cheering from their balconies or in the streets along with taxis honking in celebration. Peñarol fans do not curtail their passion for anyone, no matter the situation. Oh yea, and Peñarol has a much better winning record than Nacional.
Nacional: Although passionate, Nacional fans are much more reserved. In class, they always wait their turn to tell me why I should root for Nacional. Typically, if I’m in a class of 30 students, maybe 6 of them are Nacional fans. Nacional, recently, doesn’t have as good a track record as Peñarol because Peñarol is in the Copa Libertadores championship and Nacional is out. Nevertheless, I can also tell which of my neighbors are Nacional fans as they too scream at the top of their lungs when Nacional makes a goal; however, it is from inside their apartments and not out on their terraces.
After six paragraphs, though, I still feel that I haven’t properly conveyed how fervent the soccer mania is here. Let me recall the past 48 hours. Two nights ago, a cab driver was shot. In an act of solidarity and protest, all of the taxi and bus drivers went on strike to pressure the government into taking action to better protect transportation personnel. This was absolutely unbelievable that a) this was organized so quickly and b) how debilitating this was to the city/ province of Montevideo as buses are the only form of public transport. The entire city was paralyzed. Unless you have a car or good walking shoes, you were stuck at home- no work, no school, no nada. The strike was to last 24 hours- all day Sunday. As irate as these drivers were, as quickly as they organized a province-wide protest, they decided to postpone it until midnight Sunday. Why? Peñarol and Nacional had a game Sunday afternoon, and how would people get to the stadium if there were no buses or taxis? Soccer takes precedence over all, even principled stands against the man. Needless to say, the entire city was disrupted on Monday by lack of buses, but one thing definitely remained intact: the Peñarol/ Nacional rivalry.