Riot police were the real stars of the first soccer game I attended in Ecuador, as they were called in to escort the players and the referees off the field, and put out two fires that frenzied fans had lit in the grandstands. As I looked around for the reactions of fans looking on around me, I realized that I was the only one even remotely fazed by it; this seemed to be pretty standard. On a rainy Sunday afternoon the outskirts of Quito, it was a pretty unforgettable insight into the insanity that is fútbol fandom in Latin America.
He had his team’s logo tattooed across his entire back, and additionally on his bicep.
My time in Latin America has proven it again and again; soccer is much more than just a sport here. An average Latin American soccer fan would put some of even the most diehard sports fans I know to shame. Fandom takes on a near-religious level of hype and insanity. Perhaps it’s the near-exclusivity of soccer as a sports pastime that elevates it to another level, but I’ve met people who seem to live and breathe soccer and live and die by their team. In 2012, I attended a soccer game in Argentina and met a man that gave me a small peek into life as a “superfan.” He had his team’s logo tattooed across his entire back, and additionally on his bicep. (A tattoo of his wife's name was on his other arm, much smaller and less elaborate than his team logo, of course.)
This summer’s Copa Libertadores championship in Latin America proved to be the ultimate window into the Latin American soccer fan experience for me. Against all odds, Independiente del Valle, the team from my adopted hometown of Sangolqui, Ecuador, made it to the finals of the entire tournament and turned Sangolqui on its head in the process.
Sangolqui is located just outside of the busier and flashier national capital of Quito; things here generally start shutting down around 8 p.m. at night, and other than the fruit and vegetable market it’s a pretty low-key, sleepy town. But come the day of the championship game, the whole town became the buzzing centre of the soccer-crazed nation. Vendors were in the streets early in the morning selling flags and jerseys, and crews of men were setting up jumbo screens in front of the town's central church. The church even removed a flag commemorating the Pope’s recent visit to Ecuador, making space for the team’s colours to take prominence alongside the national flag.
Game time brought electricity to the entire town, and the game wasn’t even being held locally. Regardless, the stadium in Sangolqui filled with spectators from near and far, with some fans lining up for hours to gain admission to the stadium to watch the game on the big screen with other superfans. Until late at night, fans were partying in the streets, and children were up long past their bedtimes to see their heroes; everyone seemed so certain that cheering just a little bit louder would truly make a change in the course of the game.
In the end, Independiente del Valle lost in the final game of the championship to their rivals from Colombia, and Sangolqui quieted back down to its normal self. But the miraculous run of the soccer team made for an unforgettable moment for fans in Sangolqui and all around Ecuador. For a moment, we were the glowing center of Ecuador, as the beating heart of the country sped up for their idols and Ecuadorians became ever-more convinced their team just couldn’t do it without them.Add this article to your reading list