June 11, Santiago
One of the reasons I am here at the 2015 Copa America is because when it comes to many things - including football - the South Americans still keep things very real. From the passion and raw emotion on the terraces in the Stadion Nacional, to the thousands of 'real' Chilean 'fans' who spent 90 minutes walking home to the city centre and suburbs in the freezing cold after they witnessed their side brush aside Ecuador 2-0 last night, La Copa feels like football as it used to be, rather than the sickly, commercial and plastic-feeling tournaments often conjured up by FIFA and UEFA these days.
I arrived in Santiago on the opening day of Copa '15 at around 8am after a thirteen-hour flight from Madrid, the last leg of which was a remarkably beautiful overfly of the Andes mountains, towering so high into the heavens it was almost as if they wanted to touch the Iberia aircraft's under carriage.
I am staying near Baquedano, a popular spot for student gatherings of the riotous kind. Police riot vehicles look like something out of Mad Max. In fact they are so over-the-top that, dare I say it, I had a strange urge to chuck something at them myself. I didn't need to though as five stray dogs decided to take on one of the riot vans themselves and without provocation. Quite funny to be honest.
From Baquedano it is four stops to Nuble on Santiago's metro system, a ticket costing around one euro; three times cheaper if you are a student. Even seven hours before kick off, the metro is rammed with fans on their way to the stadium environs. Most are decked out in the red, white and blue of Chile, with pockets of mild-mannered Ecuadorians here and there.
Up at the press centre, I am relieved to discover that all is good with my press pass and I do indeed have a seat in the press tribune for the opening game of the Copa. Four years on from Argentina, the number of press covering the tournament seems to have quadrupled. Last time around, incredibly, there were around a dozen non-South American journalists covering the first round. The Santiago press centre is a converted swimming pool and is enormous.
I prefer though to get out of the press centre and see what is going on out in the streets. A student protest close to the stadium, attended by a couple hundred teenagers, has prompted a heavy-handed police response with 4 Mad Max riot vans, 20 or so normal police vans, at least 50 uniformed police, plus another dozen or so sinister-looking motor bike police - similar to those you see on TV reports about Iran - who all seem intent on nipping any problems in the bud immediately. I side step all this, rather than hanging around, as it looks like it could easily turn nasty.
Nearby, all manner of Chilean merchandise is being sold by every man and his dog on street corners and at traffic lights. Love it. At FIFA and UEFA events everything has to be 'official merchandise'. i.e. absurdly expensive tat most of the profits of which go into the pockets of those at the top of world's governing bodies and their chief sponsors. Not here, yet.
One rule that is in place at this Copa though, is no alcohol sales inside the stadiums. This is said to be out of fear of the Bravo Barvos kicking off with the authorities after they get drunk. I find a little 20-seat hole-in-the-wall bar a few hundred yards away from the stadium and people watch with a couple of cold beers as the Chileans excitedly make for the stadium.
The national stadium, inaugurated in 1938, is a huge concrete open bowl with old school floodlights and a raw energy that most modern stadia sadly lack. Instead of prawn sandwiches it is a bag of monkey nuts and a brilliantly positioned seat for the dramatic opening ceremony of the copa, which includes an 'Inca Hakka' dance. Strange and a little scary. Twelve ladies winched to mini air-balloons float above the outside of the stadium before drifting down to the main pitch, where a huge blow-up Copa America trophy and an impressive-by-any-standards fireworks display crescendos to an exciting climax which prompts 50,000 appreciative and spontaneous 'woooo's.
At the far end of the stadium, one section of the old terraces has been left as it once looked for 'remembering':
'Un Pueblo Sin Memoria es Un Pueblo sin Futuro', it says. 'A people without memory are a people without a future', a reference to Chilean dictator Pinochet's use of this very same stadium as a concentration camp, torture chambers and execution site in 1973.
Down the business in hand, Chile are under massive pressure to get a result in this game. I reckon, all things considered, they play some very cultured football against a very decent Ecuador side. One of the pluses about the Copa is that all the teams, with the possible exception of guests Jamaica, are high quality teams. There are no San Marinos or Faroe Islands (sorry Greece!) here.
Alexis Sanchez's touches and quick thinking are a joy to watch. We are watching one of the world's most talented players of the current generation at his prime. Valdivia and Vidal ain't exactly bad either. Despite some intricate build up play by Chile, it is 0-0 at half time.
With Eduardo Vargas on for Chile the game opens up in the second half but it is a needless penalty that gifts Chile a 1-0 lead through Arturo Vidal. Suddenly, Ecuador are chasing the game, and should equalize when a perfectly delivered cross from the right wing is guided on to the crossbar. With Ecuador coming close again minutes later, Chile are able to break with the brilliant Sanchez expertly playing in Vargas who fires home to make it 2-0. ROOOOOAAAARRRR go the crowd as if thousands of lions are celebrating a kill in unison. Chile have seen off Ecuador and already we can seriously talk about the hosts as potential winners of the Copa.
It is barely above zero as I catch a bus back to the centre and walk up to the litter-shrewn Baquedano where thousands of students are partying in the streets celebrating their victory. It is good-natured but a tad wild. An apt description of Chileans and their beautiful country I suspect.