Camera: iPhone 12
Location: Audi Field; Washington, District of Columbia, USA
Camera: iPhone 12
Location: Audi Field; Washington, District of Columbia, USA
A packed stadium filled with 40,000+ screaming and diehard fans imbued with a fiery passion that is seldom seen in most sporting events around the world. No, my friends, this is a special event and one that deserves the rare title of a ‘clasico’ or classic in English. However, this isn’t your ordinary clasico or derby. This isn’t Manchester United v. Manchester City or FC Barcelona v. Real Madrid. This is the Medellin derby or ‘El Clasico Paisa’, an affair that has been raging for almost seventy years. They share the same stadium and play in the same national league. Their fans come from the same city and live in the same neighborhoods.
However, when it’s ‘clasico day’ in Medellin, the differences between the two local teams could not be starker. It’s blue and red v. green and white, history / traditions v. championship / past glories. This rivalry is more than just about football. It’s about your allegiance to a team, to its’ players, to its’ customs, and to its’ culture. ‘El Clasico Paisa’ is the long-standing rivalry between the teams of Independiente Medellin and Atletico Nacional. It’s the most important derby in all of Colombia and all of South America from its’ prior reputation.
Its’ one of the biggest rivalries in all of FIFA and I was lucky enough to witness this ‘clasico’ this past Sunday. Bragging rights are on the line whenever these two teams face off. They face each other a couple of times per season in the ‘Liga Aguila’, Colombia’s national league, because they are usually both very successful and find themselves ranked in the Categoria Primera A. Having won multiple championships in the past and most recently the famed ‘Copa Libertadores’ which is the South American edition of the UEFA Champions League, Atletico Nacional are the favorites of Colombian football these days.
Having watched a few of Nacional’s matches and having been a fan of their players and their uniforms, I learned about the upcoming derby about a week before kickoff time. Unfortunately, I did not strike when the iron was hot so I left my chances of getting a ticket up until the day of the match. Luckily, in Colombia, you can scalp tickets up until a few hours from local sellers at the Stadium. While the prices are marked up a bit, I found the one I haggled for to be fair and decided to go through with my purchase. During my time of living in Colombia, I wanted to make sure that I got to see a few matches especially given how huge the sport is here in South America.
The vibe and atmosphere in the Atanasio Girardot stadium before kickoff was simply electric and you could feel the sheer energy pulsating throughout the crowd. It was so filled to capacity that it was standing room only for the entire match. Luckily, I had a good vantage point of the entire field from about five rows up in the upper deck and was located near the exit in case the fans near me got out of control. From the opening minute to the last whistle blown, Fans on both sides chanted their teams’ songs, unfurled huge banners of support, waved flags, and cheered their heroes on until their voices were hoarse.
Despite being a supporter of Atletico Nacional, the ticket I bought last minute from a street vendor was located in the heart of the Independiente Medellin section. While I was uncomfortable with this arrangement at first given that I wanted Nacional to win the ‘clasico’, I have to give credit to the Medellin fans that were outnumbered by a count of 2:1 inside the stadium. They were loud, confident, and didn’t give into doubt or disappointment even when Nacional scored upon their team around the 65th minute making it an eventual 1-0 Nacional victory.
Win or loss, Independiente Medellin fans are still behind their players 100%. This loyalty to the team goes back over a hundred years when they were founded in 1912. While they have history on their side, Medellin does not have the more recent success or amount of championships that Atletico Nacional has accumulated in recent years. With the recent victory over Independiente del Valle in the 2016 Copa Libertadores, Atletico Nacional is the team to beat in the Liga Aguila in Colombia. Historically, in the ‘El Clasico Paisa’, Atletico Nacional has played Independiente Medellin 291 times with Nacional winning 119 matches to Medellin’s 92 matches.
They have ended in a draw 80 times total. Interestingly enough, the Copa Colombia has been played 16 times between both teams with Medellin having an advantage in this category with seven wins to Nacional’s five wins. Part of what makes this ‘clasico’ special is that both teams have a history that goes back almost seventy years. They are two of the most prominent and well-known football clubs in Colombia with a rivalry that is unmatched in South America.
Having been to football matches in both Germany and Turkey where the atmosphere was enjoyable, seeing a match here in Medellin was on another level. The passion of the fans was the craziest I have ever seen and they truly live through their team’s successes and failures. Unfortunately, certain fans take the results of the ‘clasico’ matches too seriously and there have been a few sad deaths and injuries that have taken place.
Luckily, both sides were not too hostile to each other during the most recent ‘clasico’ that I attended. They were shouts, curses, and a few bad fingers raised towards either side but nothing that escalated into all-out brawling and hooliganism. I had never seen that large of a police force at a football match before but the local police take it very seriously given what’s occurred in the past. There were also riot police present in full tactical gear but I don’t believe any tear gas was fired and everybody went home safely including myself after the match had concluded.
While I was happy that Atletico Nacional won 1-0, I had bonded during the match with the Medellin fans and enjoyed cheering, chanting, and jumping up and down with them. They are a passionate lot and they are all diehard fans. I hope to attend another ‘clasico’ soon where I can wear my green and white jersey and cheer on my Nacional in their fan section. When you’re in the opposing team’s fan section and your wearing the other team’s colors, it’s always a bad idea and trouble may find you whether you like it or not. Before the ‘clasico’, I was smart enough to wear a neutral grey shirt and jeans because I wasn’t sure in which section of the stadium my seat would be. It is a very lucky thing indeed that I didn’t wear my Nacional jersey in the Medellin fan section or otherwise I might not be writing this blog post about the ‘clasico’ today.
All kidding aside, while the football match wasn’t the best or most exciting I’ve ever seen played before, the atmosphere was incredible and it was the most-lively match from the fans’ perspective that I’ve ever witnessed. It truly was a sight to behold with both sides yelling, screaming, jumping, and dancing in the hopes that their team might end up on the winning side. I can understand now why South America is such a football hub. It is the number one sport and sometimes the only sport that matters to its’ fans. If you’re ever in Colombia or specifically in Medellin, I suggest you buy a ticket and go see ‘El Clasico Paisa.’ I promise that you won’t regret this amazing experience but make sure to wear neutral clothes because you never know which fan section you’ll be seated in.
One of the best things about living in a foreign country is exploring and becoming immersed in the local sports scene. When you’re living outside the U.S., a different kind of football takes precedence over all of the sports combined. Football, in most countries, is the national sport and one in which kids from an early age learn to play and master over the years. Whether its’ a city street, a dirt field, or turf glass, football is an adaptable sport to any kind of climate which is why its’ such a famed world sport.
Before I started my travels, I looked upon football (soccer) as not that exciting and didn’t understand why it was so beloved. I didn’t like how there wasn’t that much scoring and didn’t appreciate how much skill and technique is needed in order to be successful. Football is like a fine wine that you grow to appreciate the more you learn about it. It’s a unique sport that caters both to the individual and the team too. You can play it anywhere and with anyone. Now, that I’m in my mid-20’s, I can say with a growing confidence how much I appreciate the ‘beautiful game for what it is.
The more I have traveled, the more I have witnessed the absolute love and passion that football fans have for their teams. Growing up in New York, I was a big fan of the New York Yankees and the New York Jets but it doesn’t really compare to the fanatics and supporters who back their football clubs up whether they win or lose. When I lived in Istanbul, Turkey, I saw this passion firsthand as celebrations or riots would occur whether or not the three big teams of Galatasaray, Besiktas, and Fenerbahce would win or lose. Fans of any of these local teams would light flares in the stadiums, parade through the streets, and fill the local bars up to capacity. There are few things in life that get people as emotional as the result of a football match. You have to be careful if you catch yourself in the wrong part of the city if you have your favorite team’s jersey on but they don’t support that team in that neighborhood.
I’ll never forget when thousands of Fenerbahce fans would crowd the streets of Kadikoy to celebrate their win over Besiktas. They sang team songs, lit flares up, and you could barely move through the streets. I, as a disgruntled Besiktas fan, realized just how outnumbered I was so I was forced to hide my dismay after the team had lost in a crushing defeat. There were also happier teams as an adopted Besiktas fan back in 2012 when I was studying abroad in Istanbul at the time. I remember counting down to the start of my first Besiktas match with thousands of other supporters as we jumped up and down to sing songs in support of our boys in black and white.
It’s truly a special experience when you go to a sporting event in a foreign country. I tend to find that football matches like the ones I experienced in Turkey had very passionate fans that made quite an event out of each and every game. While sporting events in the U.S. are quite fun and enjoyable in their own right, they are much more reserved than what I’ve seen from my experiences in Turkey and Colombia. A recent sports triumph that happened here in Medellin has helped make that even more true in my opinion.
Last Wednesday night, the popular and beloved Atletico Nacional team of Medellin triumphed over the Independiente del Valle FC of Quito, Ecuador to win the famed Copa de Libertadores trophy. For those of you who don’t know, the Copa de Libertadores is the South American equivalent of the UEFA Champions League where the best teams of the continent from Argentina to Paraguay battle it out over the course of many months to decide which team is the best in all of South America. It’s an intense tournament with a lot of talented teams. There are a lot of matches to play and a lot of travel involved. Its’ so difficult to win this championship that only two teams from Colombia have ever emerged victorious.
Atletico Nacional won the first championship for a Colombian club, in 1989, and Once Caldas of Manizales earned the second championship more recently in 2004. You could argue, in fact, that the Copa de Libertadores is more competitive than the UEFA Champions League of Europe given that twenty-five different teams from South America have won the title making it a more balanced and fair. There are heavyweight teams like Boca Juniors of Argentina and Santos of Brazil but there have been many underdogs who have emerged victorious in their quest of the trophy over the Copa’s history of competition.
I was lucky enough to be at a bar on the recent night when Atletico Nacional won their 2nd Copa de Libertadores title in their team history. It took them 27 years to become champions of South American club football and the excitement was palpable. A new and younger generation of devoted fans has emerged here in Medellin, and has never tasted a Copa win before. The city was on edge before the match but there was a sense of destiny with fans of all ages and backgrounds sporting the green and white of Atletico Nacional.
Taxis were hoisting the team’s flag all over the city, vendors were selling jerseys everywhere, and bars were decorating their establishments with green and white balloons. If you were a recent visitor to Medellin, you would think that there is only one football team in the city, and not two (Independiente Medellin is the other football team here with red and blue colors.) It was a special setup for a memorable match. Atletico Nacional had tied Independiente del Valle in Quito with a score of 1-1 so all they needed to do was come out with a simple victory at home now.
Due to an early and beautiful goal by forward Miguel Borja, the apprehension quickly turned to celebration for fans of Atletico Nacional all around the world. Fans still had to draw their breath after another 90 minutes of tension but Atletico Nacional were poised and determined to come out on top as champions. Atletico Nacional were victorious at 1-0 and when the final whistle blew, all of Medellin erupted in cheers, dancing, singing, and drinking.
Never in my life had I seen a city so joyous in the aftermath of victory. Cars were honking, fireworks were exploding all over, and huge crowds had formed in the streets to celebrate. Luckily, everything was peaceful here in Medellin during the night. Avenida 70, where a lot of bars and clubs were located, were so crowded that it took me an hour to get home because taxis couldn’t get through the streets. It was a wild and uproarious night and one that won’t soon be forgotten in the Colombian sports history books.
As a foreigner living here, it was pretty amazing to see the passion and the joy on the faces of the fans. If I had to compare it to a U.S. sports celebration, it would most closely resemble the Red Sox winning the 2004 World Series after an 86-year drought. The celebrations here were that intense and extensive. The school where I’m teaching here in Medellin opened its doors a few hours later than normal so that students could get some rest (or the teachers themselves.) In Turkey and now Colombia, I’ve seen the love that millions of people have for the real football. It is truly ‘the beautiful game.’