Ciudad de los Reyes

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Photo courtesy of the author, in the shadow of Nino Heroe Manuel Bonilla in Miraflores

In the work of literature to which I return most frequently, Eduardo Galeano writes, “There is nothing less empty than an empty stadium. There is nothing less mute than the stands bereft of people.”

He goes on to describe the sounds of games past, the echoes of Wembley from ’66 or the Camp Nou at any time when you’re unfortunate enough to miss Messi’s magic in real time, but he could have just as easily been describing any of the myriad pickup games that my oldest, not older, brother and I saw happening in Lima on and around Christmas, the holiday season be damned for anything but an occasion on which to kick around. People certainly invoke God enough to demand some time, after all.

“For all we know, we’re watching a fourth division game right now.”

Along with the seemingly endless parade of goals from all across the continent playing on the year-end review shows in Spanish on GOL TV in our hotel room, it was this thought that kept me engaged. If you love hearing a Mexican announcer, for example, yell, “Gooooooooooooollllllllllllllllllllllll” for longer than you can bear holding your own breath, might I recommend a South American Christmas for you?

It was the rare statement as true as it wasn’t; we knew in our hearts of hearts that these weren’t Lima’s Messis and Ronaldos, dazzling with the ease and grace of putting on a bow tie, but merely gentlemen dead set on a good time following holidays packed with unwelcoming relatives, lukewarm meats and, God Himself forbid, a demonstrated lack of piscos sour.

At the same time, what did we know, other than a Machu Picchu we wouldn’t visit and a handful of gifts we knew we’d bring home ahead of time? All that separated us from the men on the pitch, in our view, was a significant change of clothing and, in all likelihood and to the best of our knowledge, a love of la pelota which eluded us and would doom us if we tried to fake.

Along Lima’s shoreline lie soccer pitches, each more perfect than the last. “Polluting” would be the word if in less careful, more criminally creative lips, lest that space be used for the pursuit of physically impressive feats rather than gaudy art installations from people so well-off they pretend to know they’re not featured on a beach.

Regardless, in riding from the Jorge Chávez International Airport to the trendy-ish neighborhood of Miraflores, you might notice the overwhelming abundance of pitches available for public consumption. Even in the darkness of night, you’ll see full fields with empty goalposts whirring past, illuminated courtesy of the infrequent streetlamps and, ostensibly, of the gigantic, illuminated Morro Solar, which sits to the south of city center.

Weather, of course, is of no concern to the playground warriors of Peru. For a pair of gringos coming from the inhospitable climates afforded us in these United States, however, Lima’s weather was a welcome change. For those same gringos coming to grips with the quick realization that an exclusively Irish background did not afford us any favors in an equatorial country, Lima’s weather was a guide. For sun, fuera. For clouds, dentro. For mass, jesuita, regardless of the conditions.

Every so often, you may hear that soccer, like music, is a universal language. Peruvian soccer has a distinct dialect, one which even its blanket sponsors Cusqueña and Cristal cannot erase, and though the Peruvian national team[1] and its domestic leagues boast similarly modest resumes, the passion the nation’s people display is palpable in every slight flick of the heel, every well-worn Barcelona jersey, every child seen dribbling before she can properly walk.

The most complete game we watched in person, we think, involved two groups of men segmenting themselves in much the same way Americans would, one clad in white (partially, Real Madrid, for what that’s worth) garb, the other in “colored” clothing (two Barcelona jerseys among them, for what that’s worth). Against the backdrop of the moon rising, and with free-to-the-public workout equipment standing tall in any places a pitch wouldn’t fit, opposing forces exchanged schismatic interactions, joined only in a singular adoration for the precious ball.

Immediately, anyone with even a passing knowledge of typical American pickup games could see the drastic improvement in quality; for anyone who bemoans the lack of defensive effort sown into this country’s youth from an early age, Peruvian pickup may be where to turn. Only after one man, exploiting the generous real estate afforded him along the wings, scored a hat trick did the teams re-focus their energies. You, dear reader, may be pleased to know that the time-honored tradition of trying to play like the star whose jersey you pulled out of the dresser this evening lives, even below the Equator.

Matches like this populated our Boxing Day walk along the Miraflores Boardwalk, despite the occasional recognized, and ignored, American accent and a handful of kite enthusiasts. These games served as a necessary distraction, the kind we’d been seeking since departing from Newark on December 23rd.

Lima is a beautiful city, full of the beautiful game. This is only one aspect of an otherworldly adventure, but it was a pervasive and reliable one. Between the grains at La Lucha, the cherimoya of San Isidro, the brightness of Barranco, the paragliders of the cliffs and the uncannily American valleys of The Corner, soccer was a constant. How grateful a city of nearly nine million must be to inherit such an agreeable, yet divisive, pastime. We should all be so lucky.

*     *     *

[1] Nevertheless, La Blanquirroja currently sit nineteenth in the world, according to FIFA, a wholly legitimate and benevolent arbiter of all things soccer

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