Sunday, November 29, 2009

Cypriot Football

When living in Cyprus I happened to make friends with a player on their national football club. Unfortunately I never got to see him play, as the official season didn't start until after I left, but I was able to finangle an invitation to an unofficial regional match. I wasn't expecting a big game, as Patrick referred to it as just a small "friendly" match, but it could have passed for a Real Madrid game based on insanity-level alone.

I could see that the football match was crowded from about a mile away, as the streets were packed with cars parked in every available space. Patrick found (or rather, created) a spot close by, and we all piled out. When I walked through the gate, a woman searched my bag very thoroughly, pulling every item out and examining it before putting it back. Of course I had packed a box of tampons that day, which are always fun to air in public. Those she inspected extra carefully, as if suspecting that I had slipped a lethal weapon into the padding. I wasn’t worried, as I couldn’t think of anything in there that would be a problem. But lo and behold, she eventually confiscated a ballpoint pen and a wine glass left in my purse from the previous night's wine festival. I was a bit flabbergasted, for lack of a better word. I asked her why I couldn't take them in, and she demonstrated (speaking very slowly, as if to a small, slow child) that I could stab someone with the pen, and break the glass on someone’s head. I felt my first twinge of nervousness. This was my first clue that I had inadvertently walked into a den of lunatics.

Before the game I had confidently told Patrick of how I’d been to a football match in Brazil, and I didn’t think this could be any crazier than that. Well, it turns out that Brazil has nothing on Cyprus. Who knew that this little island in the Mediterranean would harbor a large concentration of possessed football nuts? I was told that this was a “friendly regional” match, so it shouldn’t be too out of control. It turns out that “not too out of control” involves riot police, fires started in the stands, and fans attacking the players. I will not be attending any higher level football matches in Cyprus, at least without a hazmat suit and a helmet.

Let me explain: we ended up sitting in what I would assume were the cheap seats, as there were still a few empty when we got there. It was at one end of the field, but the view was still good. I’m glad we were out of the main action, really. It got pretty dicey at the other end of the stadium. At one point during the second half I looked up to see black smoke billowing up from one of the grandstands. Someone had started a fire! They cleared that section, put the fire out, and re-seated the fans all within 10 minutes, never pausing the game at all. Business as usual, I assume.

After the fire, the rest of the game was relatively event-free. Even so, just before the game ended the riot police started circling the field. They were wielding shields, tasers, and the whole enchilada, much to my amazement. Looking back, I don't know why I was shocked, given the previous display of pyrotechnics. Then again, I'm not the quickest bunny in the forest. I asked Patrick what they were there for, and he told me that it was to protect the players. I still couldn’t believe it. Why would anyone hurt the players? Didn’t they have any loyalty? Then he told me a heartwarming story about how one time when his team lost a game, the fans actually stoned them! The players had to make a run for their bus, then the "fans" broke all of the windows with rocks as they were leaving. These people have lost their minds, all over a sport. I mean, I enjoy watching soccer with the best of them, but it would never occur to me to attack someone for missing a shot or losing a least not in a local match.

In any case, the game came to an unremarkable conclusion: there were a few failed shots at the goal, and the final score was 0-0. I was somewhat relieved: if there weren’t any goals scored, and no one really lost, then the fans wouldn’t have anything to riot over, right? Oh, Cassie, you silly, naive girl. Apparently those failed goal shots pissed some people off enough to take their frustration out on the players. We ended up getting locked in the stadium for at least a half hour after the game, as a fight had broken out outside. I’m not sure why the police thought that locking a huge group of people inside the stadium would help; I could think of a few holes in their plan, but I refrained from pointing them out. I had already lost my pen, and I didn’t want them to confiscate my tampons as well.

Finally we were let go, free to sit through hours of traffic trying to leave the crowded parking lot. As we waited I pondered over the reason that some people have completely lost sight of the fact that sports are supposed to be played for fun, exercise, and entertainment. At what point did regular fans turn into rabid, fire-starting, rock-throwing fanatics? This is not life or death, people. In Seattle we joke about “fair-weather fans,” but these guys invented it! I can only imagine what an “unfriendly” game is like in Cyprus…no thanks, I choose life.

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