The check-in steward asked if I had any seat preferences and I said I’d like one next to Alvaro Recoba. Somehow, I had chanced a booking on the same flight as the Socceroos and the Uruguayans, and given the Australians were up in business class, I figured I’d take the Uruguayan superstar under my wing and share with him a sustained, 14-hour dissertation on, say, cloud formations. Wake up Mr Recoba, that one there is a cumulonimbus, that sort of thing.
“I’m sorry, sir, but you can only request an aisle or a window.”
And so the dream was shattered. I sat near the Uruguayan boys (close enough to see a man who is paid about $300,000 a week negotiate a reconstituted frittata with a plastic knife), but not near enough to engage in any forms of gamesmanship.
By the time the plane was one hour from Buenos Aires, the Uruguayans had fired up a Discman with external speakers and were leading a section of the cabin in a Brazilian pop song. Hola amores! Nicolas Olivera winked to a couple of Qantas flight attendants. The men Uruguayans call Los Celestes (The Sky Blues) seemed to be travelling worryingly well and outside, 18,000 metres above the greens of Argentina, there was barely a cumulonimbus to be seen.
I decided against the domestic flight from Buenos Aires to Montevideo, thinking I was saving $A100 by boarding the ferry, but not knowing I was also dodging a line-up of gollying Uruguayan fans.
By the time I’d taken the three-hour voyage across the Rio de la Plata, the airport incident was dominating the news. We are so sorry, it is not the Uruguayan people, was the response from all corners of a beautiful city of tree-lined streets and beaches. It is a disgusting minority who are the agitadores (hooligans). The same 30 or so people, they also tore things up here after the game in Melbourne.
I spent some time clarifying whether the frenzy came as a result of disappointment with the 1-0 defeat or excitement at the sight of Angry Anderson with so many motorcycles during the pre-match entertainment in Melbourne.
“We are very ashamed of what Australian people must think about Uruguay,” said 80-year-old Elsa Rye, who caught me in a shopping centre car park snapping a photo of a sodden urban horizon, inky clouds banded with a deep orange underbelly. “Thank you for taking a photo of our sky. You should take that sky to Australia and tell people that good people live under this beautiful sky. I very much like this sky of mine tonight.”
She then promised me that Uruguay would lose the match, for the simple reason of international conspiracy. FIFA will not make enough money out of a country of just three million reaching the World Cup. We will lose.
The reason for hanging around the shopping centre car park was that it backed on to the Sheraton, the Socceroos’ hotel, the place to go as an Australian chasing a ticket. A few minutes earlier, I’d interrupted a photo shoot to ask Mark Viduka and Paul Okon how they were killing the hours between training sessions, but made the mistake of failing to clear it with the media officer first. Okon stared at me, and Viduka stared at my feet and sipped disconsolately on his prop lemonade. He then had a mild panic attack that it was made from local water.
“I feel a bit funny already,” he said to the media officer. “Did you see the bottle get opened?”
I felt bad about asking my boring question about boredom, and slunk into the car park with my ticket. I then perched on the beautiful beach promenade, watching night soccer games and reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera by lamplight – and praying that Garcia Marquez’s lyrically described animes (the water spirits the main character discovers to be mosquito larvae) were staying well clear of an Australian striker’s $A11 lemonade.
Saturday night, Primata Hotel
I met another Australian, Simon de Young, and together we were humiliated in a beer-garden sing-off. The power had gone down for the second time in the night, and fuelled by beer and pre-game excitement, La Primata Bar’s drinkers exploded into a rendition of Soy Celeste: Soy celeste, soy celeste, celeste soy yo…
It translates to something like: I am sky blue, I am sky blue, Sky blue am I – which lyrically might not sound any more inspiring than Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi, but it has a moving, hymn-like quality that we can never achieve if we exclude melody and keep the ois.
Simon and I hit back with a Waltzing Matilda that was mocked for being too slow, and then a series of AFL songs that we tried to sell off as soccer songs. “Where is this Tigerland?” someone asked, a question dodged by a nimble sidestep into the Happy Little Vegemites theme.
The final blow from locals came in the form of an entire bar room of drinkers jumping on their chairs and singing: Borom bom bom, el que no selte, no va a Japon.
Eventually we received a translation – the one who doesn’t jump doesn’t go to Japan – but by the time we’d joined in, the bar had shifted into a harmonised version of an old Uruguayan folk song called Jump, Jump, Jump, You Little Kangaroos.
Sunday, 2pm, El Estadio Centenario
One of the great pleasures of Australian sport is walking to a big event through the Fitzroy Gardens. In Montevideo, the scene almost rivals it. Waterfalls and promenades and hectares of gardens surround El Estadio Centenario, the ground built for the first World Cup in 1930.
“If you win, you should run after the match,” a man in the yellow-and-black colors of the local side Penarol said with a toothless laugh as we gathered outside the gate. “But don’t worry, Uruguay will win 2-0,” he added reassuringly.
“No, Australia will draw 1-1,” I said, buoyed by the presence of about 50 mounted police.
I must have looked like I knew what I was talking about because in no time I was pounced upon by Japanese television for an interview. To hide an Aussie rules background, I tried to pepper my answers with recently learned soccer expressions: If Okon can release Kewell, if we can organise ourselves well down back, if Lazaridis can find the ball down the left… From the way the Japanese interviewer stood there silently, I need not have bothered. Nobody understood a word.
Across the way, three backpackers with yellow-and-green hair were doing a better job singing songs for ESPN.
Then the Uruguayan bus arrived, and tens of thousands of waiting fans began the Soy Celeste song again. I am sky blue, sky blue am I. As 100-odd Aussie fans entered the stadium under police guard, there was no reason to doubt them. From the cloudless heavens to 65,000 jumping individual sky-blue units, the place was a pulsing, monochromed colossus.
“Oh my God, they’ve got a moat,” was all Simon could say as we reached our seats on the top level. Sure enough, at each end of the pitch there were muddy troughs of water, a few metres wide, and topped with razor wire. There would be no Pat-Cash-style dashes into the crowd today.
From the moment the players made their grand entrance through the side of a giant inflatable cigarette, there was a sense El Estadio was something larger than any of us. The 200 or so Australians in the police-cordoned top deck roared Advance Australia Fair, but the sound was lost in the winds and the whistles of those moat-side. And the Uruguayan anthem, which to me had sounded something like The Flight of the Bumble Bee in Melbourne, now shook the stadium with sombre menace.
The Socceroos fidgeted, the police saluted, and the crowd sang of their country’s proud independence, secured in 1828, and maintained ever since as a buffer between Portuguese Brazil and Spanish Argentina.
In the 14th minute Dario Silva scored, and from that moment watching became an agony. Australia had its chances, most notably a searing Kewell strike in the 64th minute, a duffed header from Viduka a minute later, and in the 79th, Paul Agostino’s header, which was well saved by Carini. But the Uruguayans had more chances, more class, and were clearly a two-goals-better team.
The final scoreline was 3-0, the last two coming from the substitute Richard Morales, a man who had sat just two rows away on the flight over and who had absolutely dominated the Lethal Weapon3 pinball machine in transit in Auckland. Flippers Wednesday, feet Sunday – the man was having a good week.
At the final whistle, it was time for the South Americans to make big decisions, like who to embrace and how many clothes to remove for the victory lap. The Socceroos meanwhile endured a terrible walk back across the field and up the inflatable cigarette.
As for those of us who crossed an ocean with the dream that Iran 1998 might be redeemed, we clapped them right to the filter tip. It had, after all, been a good campaign. But as Garcia Marquez might say, three more years of solitude.
I spent the time after the match eating pizza with a couple of Australians in something called a cervezaria (it roughly translates as beer-ateria). Outside, on Avenue 18 de Julio, an emergency call had gone out to every open-topped car and truck in Montevideo, the not-so-secret summons being a two-hour, unbroken horn blast. On the vehicles and between them, radios blared and people danced. And not just any dancing either, it was passionate, ecstatic and synchronised to a samba beat led by hundreds of drummers. As though they were performing an impromptu musical called Not This Time, Little Kangaroo.
On a nearby table, a man who introduced himself as Jose Tanco commiserated.
“It is sad for you, but for us football is very important. It would have been a national disaster to miss out for the third time running. Football is inside every Uruguayan. We have won two World Cups, two Olympic gold medals, 19 Copa America, 10 more than Brazil. It’s beyond sport, it’s like The Pride.”
At that moment, another reveller hurried through the door of the bar and over to our table. He said something very fast and incomprehensible to me in Spanish (which means it wasn’t hello, goodbye or beer-ateria), before flashing a smile that was big on effort, but low on teeth.
I stared back for a moment, worrying over a response before opting for a smile and a simple “si”.
The man clapped me on the back, said “gracias” and ran out with the rest of our pizza. It was that sort of day.