A cumbia version of Celia Cruz’s “La Vida es un Carnaval” bellows from the orchestrated band behind the CA Huracán goal. Trumpets and drums are in full swing as the second half kicks off in the Parque Patricios neighborhood of Buenos Aires.
The first half ended goalless, but not before the Caracas FC captain Miguel Mea Vitali managed to get himself sent off after clattering into the back of an Huracán player as they went up for a header. It’s a game that will determine the fate of both teams for the rest of South America’s spring season. That is because the winner of this 2-leg playoff will qualify for South America’s version of the Champions League, the Copa Libertadores. It is a tournament so worshiped, Brazilian great Deco said he would give up both of his Champions League trophies just for one Copa Libertadores trophy. This is the first leg of the Copa Libertadores qualifier, and for Caracas FC to have their captain sent off so soon is a huge blow. Not only are the Venezuelan club down to 10 men for the rest of the match, but they are without their captain for the return leg in Caracas. They have a tough test against Huracán.
In the 74th minute of the tie, Huracán get their awaited goal. A few poor clearances by the Caracas defenders leads to a quick cross, giving Huracán’s Mariano González a chance to lunge in and stab the ball across the line. The far end of the large yet humble stadium where tens of thousands of Huracán fans are crammed into explodes with a roar. There are no seats behind the goal, just support rails. A barbed wire fence surrounds the field, as is customary in all Argentine stadiums. As the players celebrate, you can see an armed guard behind one of the corner flags. He is a full camouflage suit and a masked helmet, holding a large very large gun. There are several of these guards around the field. A cynic would say this is required, such is the behavior of the South American supporters. An optimist would say it’s a testament to the passion and warlike atmosphere that can only be felt in South American stadiums.
As the Huracán players jog back to their half of the field after scoring, a stern middle-aged man stands motionless on the sidelines. He’s wearing a silky white button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up. The top half of the buttons on his shirt are undone, completely exposing the center of his chest and long crucifix necklace. Skinny black dress pants are subtly combined with a pair of camouflage color sneakers. His dark beard is long and pointy at the bottom, yet very well-manicured. His hair is long and spiky at the top, with a skin-close fade down the sides and back, and is also very carefully manicured. If you saw him on the street, you would think he was on his way to a Buenos Aires nightclub, or that he was an actor on his way to shoot a scene where he plays a high-class drug lord. Then the man starts making gestures and instructing the players on the pitch. He is Huracán’s manager Eduardo Domínguez.
In South America, tactics aren’t very rigid and the game is very free-flowing. This allows players to express themselves, and this footballing culture allows managers to do the same. Domínguez is the most respected man in the stadium, having taken the club from lower-league anonymity to South American glory. He couldn’t have done it without a core group of experienced players like goalkeeper Marcos Díaz, striker Ramón “Wanchope” Ábila, as well as budding playmaker in Alejandro Romero-Gamarra.
Huracán are a surprise to see in the last qualifying round of Copa Libertadores, however, this humble club has been on an incredible run for the last two years. Winning the Copa Argentina as a second division club in 2014 qualified them for South America’s premier fall tournament, the Copa Sudamericana. They miraculously reached the final in 2015, losing to Colombian side Santa Fe. Their appearance in the final of the 2015 Copa Sudamericana then qualified them for the playoff rounds of this year’s Copa Libertadores. A miraculous string of cup runs now has Huracán vying for a group-stage place in South America’s biggest club competition. Huracán were promoted to the Argentine first division in 2015 after finishing 3rd in the second division. It was the year that the Argentine Football Association famously added 10 teams to the normally 20 team league.
The game ends 1-0 in favor of Huracán. In two weeks, one of these teams will make it to the group stage of the Copa Libertadores, which is named in honor the great liberators of the South American continent. Sixteen liberators to be exact, all contributing to the independence of South American countries, in some cases several. One of the liberators, and perhaps the greatest of them all is Simon Bolivar (1783-1830). He contributed to the independence of Colombia, Venezuela, Perú, Panamá, Ecuador, and Bolivia, whom the country was named after. He was the first ever president of Colombia and Bolivia, as well as president of Perú and twice president of Venezuela. The Venezuelan currency, the Bolívar, is named after Simón Bolívar, and incidentally, Caracas FC’s 1-0 loss against Huracán falls on the eve of the Venezuelan Bolívar exceeding a hyperinflated exchange rate of 1000:1 with the U.S. Dollar.
The second leg of this playoff will take place in Caracas, the city with the highest murder rate in all of South America. Shortage, hunger, and crime ravage the country, all while having more oil reserves than any other country on the planet. The communist dictatorship, led by Hugo Chavez’s appointed successor Nicolás Maduro, has made life so difficult for its citizens that few Venezuelans will be concerned with the result of the match. Due to inflation and violence Venezuela, attendance at soccer games has gone down considerably. These days, schools and universities are shut down for weeks at a time, and Venezuelans spend their free time participating in organized anti-government protests or waiting in line for several hours to buy food.
Caracas FC will have a tough hill to climb. Already 1-0 down, if Huracán score a valuable road goal, Caracas FC will suddenly need 3, or they will be eliminated. As they say in South America, they will have been “woken up,” since the “dream” of being in the Copa Liberatores has ended. Perhaps Huracán manager Eduardo Domínguez will decide to wear a graphic tee of his favorite rock band. A go-to for many Argentine managers.