I have never been to a match like it and doubt I ever will do so again. What memories to cherish! Firstly though, I was fortunate enough to acquire two tickets for the match, just three days before. The result of being able to find willing sellers: I paid COP340,000 for two tickets worth COP 50,000 each.
The whole city builds up for the match. There are vendors selling yellow, blue, white or red football shirts on every street corner. People are wearing them too, the nearer the game, the more wearers. On the day itself, I went for brunch and felt odd not wearing one. Alas, come the game, the hair done spiky red, I donned a yellow one, no. 4 on front and back and the name of Cuadrado: the master playmaker.
Paula’s dad and I headed to the game by taxi. It was baking hot and humid, as usual. Now the yellow shirts outnumbered the plain, especially the nearer we got to the stadium. Embarking near the venue, we walked, sweating, and paused for a beer. Aguila light. Oh yes, cool and refreshing. Continued the walk, sweltering. The stadium comes into view – I’ve been to many, there was not really anything particularly special about this one, but, still, it always brings me a thrill to be walking into one.
Passing the first security, we had to remove our belts. Damn, but thankfully I wasn’t wearing my khaki shorts, otherwise I’d have resembled a young male follower of fashion with underwear showing. Dad sorted out the belts, leaving them at a nearby restaurant. Security let us in holding our cans of beer though. Then there was another security to pass. Then another. And another. Finally we got to the turnstiles, our tickets ripped and we were in.
The first difference from other stadiums I’ve been to becomes noticeable: walking up to the top North tier, our place in the stadium, it’s all ramp. You walk up it and it swirls round. Perfect for those who are ‘stair-impaired’ (a word I just made up). And then into the arena itself: you don’t find a numbered seat on the ticket, you sit where you can. The stadium was glorious, almost too perfect. It doesn’t ‘lean forward’ like the Amex. What an absolute disgrace to think the Amex has like a thousand stairs to climb up to the top. It isn’t bunched up and ugly like Wembley. It rises at a perfect angle – actually reminded me slightly of the old Wembley, and the view is glorious. It’s exactly what you got to a football stadium for.
So, it’s just before 1.30pm when we are seated inside, 2hrs before kick-off, and our North Stand section is almost full already, with groups breaking out into the occasional song, whistle-blow, clap. I soaked up the atmosphere, and tried to battle off the heat with a makeshift fan. The condensation was filling my aids, they going on and off, so what I heard alternated between the roar and chatter of the crowd and tinnitus. I surveyed my surroundings and noticed that every single spectator was wearing the famous yellow shirt, with a smattering of blues, whites and reds. In all, throughout the game I counted just three people sin football shirts.
Dad pointed to the skies because dark clouds were drifting over and you could feel the menace in them. True to form, it pattered, and then, down it came, all the water of the Caribbean. Then you knew the script, because it was only 2.30. We were under shelter but there were holes in the roof, so rain did get through, meaning we didn’t escape the water entirely. My Mohawk didn’t stand a chance, and was soon dead.
I watched, in exasperation, as the pitch filled with puddles at all sections of the park. I really watched this painting unravel, and the longer it went on, the sicker I felt. All that anticipation, build up, admiring the beauty of the Barranquilla downpours and rivers, reveling in it even. And now, I couldn’t even hate it, just feel my stomach fall. The crowd became silent and I had to take off my aids due to the wet.
The refs came out to inspect the pitch which bought cries of derision. What was going to happen? It was 40 mins or so until kick off. They walked to all parts of the ground, pointlessly. The clock ticked down and the rain didn’t subside; in fact give it half an hour or so and we could all go for a swim. Or the teams could play water football or something.
Some groundsmen came by the pitch and dug pitchforks near the pitch itself: I couldn’t believe what was happening, how could a few little forks save it?
And then a miracle arrived.
Around 3.45 the puddles started to subside, even though it continued to rain, albeit less intensely than previously. How could this be happening?! I had no idea what was going on, but clearly there was some underground heating or drainage of some kind that was activated. Just as I had watched the puddles rise, and felt the sinking feeling within me, I watched them subside and felt a rising again. Down went the puddles, and the crowd began cheering again. By 4.30 it was almost entirely puddle-free; they just had to drain the corners.
Then on came the guys with the pitchforks to dig up a few remaining resistant areas. A few footballers came on to have a kick about, and then you knew the game was on, even though it was 90 minutes late. It continued to rain. Boo-yah-rasp to the rain.
So onto the game. National anthems were sang and a minutes silence was held for the Ecuadorean forward who had died of a heart attack recently, at the age of only 27. Colombians told the noisy ones to shut up and they did and the silence was respected totally.
Game on, edgy, but Colombia passed around well, although it was Ecuador who came closest, forcing the goalie into a diving save. Colombia were playing towards the north stand, so we had the best view of their attacking action, and a turning point came in the 26th minute when a Colombian player got past the last defender, ran towards goal, and was blatantly brought down from behind. The 26th minute! Immediate red card and the anticipation rose. Soon enough a shot on goal by the famous Falcao could only be hit away by the goalie and James followed up and put it in the net.
Absolute mayhem and ecstasy followed, what an experience, to be there, when that goal was scored and the players celebrated in the corner. I jumped for joy too and the whole crowd rocked and thundered, putting the skies to shame.
The rest of the half was played out, mainly by Colombia keeping possession and making a few chances, and Ecuador holding on until half time. There was a good feeling around the place. The opposition down to ten men; the Colombian side were almost sure to be in complete control of the rest of the match.
Then more drama: when all the players got onto the pitch for the second part, half the lights in the stadium flunked! Blimey, what next?! The same sinking feeling as previously didn’t quite take hold although I did ponder what would happen if they couldn’t fix the lights; ‘it’s not that dark, play the damned game!’ Fifteen minutes later they started to flicker back to life and it was game on.
Emotionally I’d been swinging up and down, left and right, and it was only half time, and as the game wore on early in the second half they slowly, gradually, sank yet again, as Ecuador, quite frankly, took hold of the game. Colombia were struggling, coming up short with their passes, looking laboured, as the opposition zipped all over the pitch. They left gaps at the back, but Colombia couldn’t exploit it, although in fairness they did have a few good chances. By and large, however, it was getting pretty obvious that the tone of the second half was set and Ecuador were the team on top.
My feelings began to churn once again, as although I glowed in utter admiration for Ecuador, I badly wanted Colombia to win. It would be history and bring me some cherries. Then, disaster – and remember Ecuador are attacking at the North end – a Colombian clearly brought down one of the opponents in the penalty area and it was stonewall. It wasn’t a sending off, but the opposition were angered no red card came, so they got set to take their penalty.
Total silence at first, some whistling to try and put the Ecuador guy off, and my thinking was: he is going to score, and if he does, they will deserve it and it’s unlikely Colombia will come back. But, lo and behold, as if some puppeteer was pulling strings from the skies, they missed! He hit it to his left and it didn’t even hit the post, just whistled clean past the outside.
I stayed seated – in sheer relief, but those around me went totally crazy, it felt like I was surrounded by Ecuadoreans and they had scored. As the game played out Colombia continued to create chances, but it was Ecuador who was on top and looked likely to score, but lacked quality in the last third.
When the final whistle went there was total joy on the field and in the stands. Many of the Colombian players collapsed to the ground, as they should because they had been extremely fortunate. Fireworks were set off outside the ground, you could see them crackle, pop and light up the sky, for the result meant Colombia were definitely guaranteed at least a play-off place in the road to Brazil.
So all my emotions were totally churned to pieces, and it was very clearly a game to remember for life for more reasons than the match itself. We watched the celebrations for a bit and then left. It was still raining. We had a small bite, another beer, and walked for a few kilometres to catch a taxi home. The walk was the biggest irritant of the night, for even though I had just been through an unforgettable experience, and even though the rain was not what bothered me, it was chaotic, there were puddles and ragged pavements everywhere you stepped (not to mention people coming in the opposite direction), and it was dark.
Eventually, however, we got a cab and got home, wet, but I started to feel the joy once again. We’d left home at 12.15 and were home almost exactly nine hours later; and that’s a local game without any long stops at pubs or restaurants either way.
And so, I have seen the Colombian national teams play three times – the first two were the women’s Olympic team at Glasgow, vs North Korean and the USA. Now I’ve been set to go to games that were called off due to poor weather – snow in Brighton in winter, for e.g. – but never sat at delayed games (ok, maybe one or two were delayed 5-15 mins for one reason or another), but never for so long. The Colombia vs North Korea game was delayed for around 90-120 minutes because the North Koreans were upset over the flying of the South Korean flag, and at Barranquilla it was the rain and failed lights that delayed it.
Still, I have the remainder of the ticket and a head and heart full of memories of a lifetime, all because, to quote Sir Alex: ‘football, bloody hell!’