JUN
29
2009
Mickey Blue Eyes...
SOUTH AMERICAN DIARY Part 2
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Day Three, Monday 22nd June 2009.

Today was set-up for a visit to the two separate CD Everton administrative offices. These are in the city centre, not at the Estadio Sausalito. Then on to a visit to World Heritage Site Valparaiso. By this time we were used to the cold which persisted despite bright sunshine, but it was still a lot better than the low grey clouds and trapped smog of Santiago. John led the expedition because he knows the place like the back of his hand and has a total grasp of colloquial Spanish and the club personalities, all of which is a gift from the gods for the rest of us stand-out-like-a-sore thumb gringos.

The first club office in rented space houses all the modern day-to-day functions and is staffed with full timers doing their best to keep up with the necessary bureaucratic stuff that keeps any organisation functioning. The second office is in an old colonial building in the club's ownership within a few minutes walk on Avenue Valparaiso. The workers in the older building are voluntary, unpaid, and do it because they love the club. Everybody was very friendly and a bit curious about crazy north Europeans thousands of kilometres from home in the cause of friendship and footy. We received warm welcomes in both, though there was a stark difference in surroundings between the two locations. The first was busy and intense, the second an easy-going house for the club's memorabilia, trophy room and a large basement gym that included a basketball court lined on two sides with American style bleachers. In an earlier visit The Ruleteros Society had played a friendly five-a-side footy game on the court.

In the main offices manager Gianfranco gifted posters and a briefing on the upcoming two-legged semi-final play-off with Universidad de Chile. Some administrative genius has worked out a play-off system for the league title that ought to have all Chilean meritocrats spitting feathers. The eight leading clubs play each other in two-legged knock outs. So a team that finishes eighth can actually win the title. Go figure. Exciting and climactic it may be, but I'd be mightily pissed off if my team finished first and didn't win the championship. Which demonstrates perfectly why accountants and office clerks shouldn't be allowed anywhere near outright control of The Beautiful Game. As someone once said, democracy's all very well until you can't get your own way.

The second offices are run by proud former players Don Oscar Padró and Jorge Miranda, both of whom deplore the route the modern game has taken - with at least as much feeling as we all do. Nevertheless, like us, they stick with it because they have an instinctive love for the game itself. Football really is an international language without words. You see the same facial expressions, the same enthusiasm and excitement and the same selfless dedication from fans everywhere across the planet. It is one of the enduring mysteries of our species as to how all of this can be inspired by twenty-two men kicking a bladder of air around a grass pitch. Yes, the modern game has been partly hijacked by moneymen, crooks and street thugs. But not entirely so, and not permanently. Our most constructive hope is that the best instincts will prevail through determined common sense. Presently CD Everton are faced with the same intractable commercial problems the system forces on everyone. They have to make a living and somehow keep everything going in a relentlessly competitive genre.

Which is why the old colonial building is slated for demolition and replacement by a modern development. This is a great pity, since it wouldn't cost that much to restore the building to grandeur. Brave and proud efforts have been made to redecorate and retain a fading aura. Unfortunately it is in a prime location, an irresistible siren call to realise surplus value and "invest" in the club. The philosophy is as illusory as the South Sea Bubble of course but that is unlikely to halt the sale. We live in an era similar to Establishment defeat of the Chartists. Eventually the pendulum will swing back in much the same manner as it did in the twentieth century. But it will take time. Nil desperandum, socialistas. Meantime, the old colonial building nestles in a boulevard garden of sprouting new apartment blocks and other modern buildings, many of which make English cheapo opportunist architecture look like cartoon cardboard.

None of this has done more than cause Oscar and Jorge to carry a halo of sadness in face of the burgeoning system. They stay determined to preserve what they can and to encourage a Former Players Foundation similar to our own, more of which later. The trophy room has an astonishing collection of silverware and other memorabilia, including some nice gestures from our own beloved Royal Blues, one of which is an excellent wide-angled montage of Goodison Park signed by Keith Wyness. The entrance lobby is lined with paintings and photographs of former squads and players. And in honour of the Centenario, a collection of wonderfully spontaneous crayon and watercolours by local schoolchildren. As always, future hopes lie with the young and their shining dreams.

Then, by spotless metro to port city Valparaiso and its dozens of hills, funicular systems and organic, pastel shaded houses clinging to the topography by their domestic finger tips. Apparently the city had flourishing expat communities - including a large English tribe of 4,000 - until two world wars put an end to that sense of free movement. A lot of it too had to do with classic European colonialist greed, though not all of it was merely miserable profits-seeking. There are indications everywhere of English and Spanish influence and settlement. Had Chilé nothing but bad memories of the era there would be no street references or buildings to remind the world. The port itself is fairly small but still workaday busy, with container ships queuing out on the horizon and small fishing boats and tourist boats waiting to take you around the bay. The Chilean navy also has a base at the mouth of the port and a few low silhouette grey destroyers and frigates bristling with IT antennae.

After a beer in a very old bar that advertised "traditional beers and ales" - take heart you defensive Scousers: the bar stools nearest to the door were actually chained to the foot rail - we took an irresistible funicular journey on a marvellously rickety old timber car and traction system made from old railway sleepers. At the top, the view out to the Pacific was stunning, the temperature almost perfect. You had to envy the houses with balconies and terraces with built in barbeques. It all looked civilised in a way the English have long forgotten in their race to get shit-faced in some grubby pub selling stale crisps and curled up sarnies.

John directed us to a nearby restaurant/bar with a terrace with an even better setting. At which place I indulged a new found enthusiasm for Pisco Sour. A party of Aussies occupied a nearby table but we resisted the temptation to wind them up over the upcoming Ashes Series. They looked too well mannered to fall for it so we settled between ourselves for an interesting argument about standing terraces at footy games. Then we strolled back down the hill through winding cobbled streets, packed houses and quite the most artistic and colourful graffiti I have seen anywhere. By comparison, Brit and Yank graffiti looks like incoherent scribble. We passed the Chilean Navy Headquarters building painted battleship grey and took the metro back to Viña del Mar and a siesta designed to recover from the headlong itinerary designed by John. I can't speak for anyone else but I was almost out on my feet. John had things lined up to challenge the staying power of Sebastian Coe at his peak.

In the evening we were guests of the club at a restaurant in the Con Con area north of Viña, where we eventually met with director Sandro Rossi, CEO Patricio Garcia and Operations Manager Waldo Silva. But only after a taxi ride from hell took us in circles through the steep streets and back again. During dinner we broached the subject of a possible friendly between Everton England and Everton Chilé, a question that virtually dominates The Ruleteros Society. Everyone seemingly welcomed the idea if a mutually convenient date could be found sometime in the future, one of the main problems being the different seasonal periods and how they overlap. Patricio made a rough estimate of $80,000 for their costs etc. The figure seemed reasonable to me. By the time we left there was much optimism that the possibility was a step nearer reality. This was reinforced by the idea for a preliminary meeting of the clubs' youth teams and perhaps even a youth tournament. Anything that cements the relationship is surely to be welcomed.

Day Four, Tuesday, 23rd June 2009.

John had a presentation to make in the evening at Club de Viña, the impressive heart of the local Establishment. The subject was the history of CD Everton upto 1925. At the last moment Juan helpfully told him it had to be in Spanish. So the rest of us were despatched from John's presence while he wrestled with his temperament and the vagaries of PowerPoint. The situation grew fraught when he accidentally erased everything he had done, couldn't recover it and had to start again. The air was an interesting shade of puce as we hurried from the scene of the disaster. Then the atmosphere got surreal with the news of Michael Jackson's departure from this mortal coil. We reeled from the double whammy and headed into the streets for some relief.

In the evening it was suit and tie time for John's Big Moment. We had only a short stroll across the neatly landscaped square to the Club and a welcoming circle of uniformed greeters and white coated waiters fussing around an attendance of about three hundred locals and pillars of the Establishment. Juan made the introduction and John was off and running, while James pressed all the right PowerPoint buttons to make sure what came up on the projector screen properly matched the narration. It quickly became obvious John had done a really impressive historical research job to go with his Spanish. A professional historian would have had a hard job to better the delivery. The only slightly awkward moment came when the audience were informed that Salvador Allende once played for CD Everton. There was a sharp intake of breath from some because memories are still raw. But the subject was so sensitively handled the moment was gone almost as quickly as it arose. In any case the club history is so fascinating it subsumed everything else.

Afterwards, we were invited into the directors' bar and meeting room for a chat and relaxing drink. It seems the day before the members had decided to allow women into the area for the first time. So Anne made her own little bit of history by being the first English woman to enter the hallowed space. We had barely quaffed and exchanged greetings when John was on the case again, telling us we were scheduled to meet former players and some fans groups at the old CD offices, that We Better Put A Move On And Get Going Or We're Going To Be Late. Paul volunteered to stay behind and press the flesh so it didn't look too hurried a departure. We almost ran down to the venue and a gathering of former players proudly indicating themselves in team photographs from their glory days while they served up snacks and drinks. Then a moment of sheer delight when a young couple in national costume performed a traditional Chiléan dance in the main lobby. Afterwards we were invited into the meeting room and seated as guests of honour at the head of the table.

Don Oscar explained they were trying to set up a Former Players Foundation and invited suggestions based on the Everton England experience. It was a touching moment to look around the room and see so many faces now advanced from youthful enthusiasm and playing vigour to trying to establish a memorial to the past. It was humbling to see how intently they listened to what we had to say. It was a very moving moment when we were presented with bottles of wine as gifts.

Then John shepherded us down stairs to meet with a fans' group of all ages who had waited patiently through all the delays. This too was a wonderful moment, coming as it did on the eve of the centenario. Photos, songs, more drinks and snacks and then a huge burst of cheering at midnight when the 100th birthday arrived.

Day Five, Wednesday 24th June 2009. Happy Birthday Everton Chilé!

This was always targeted as the busiest and most hectic day.

It started again at the old CD offices. The building was festooned with celebratory banners and flags to greet assembling fans in the front garden, local dignitaries, a platoon of media cameras, and a smart band. The dignitaries were fronted by Virginia Reginalta who bore more than a passing resemblance to Vanessa Feltz. As she passed, John said, "If you were a baby she would have kissed you." Politicians are no different anywhere. The band struck up the rousing national anthem, the flag was raised and speeches were made. Two musicians in national costume sang to their own accompaniment of traditional harp and pipes, a sound I have always thought of as the most haunting and evocative music. The occasion had received a formal blessing.

The next event was an open day at Estadio Sausalito for the fans and the media. And it was just brilliant, a barbecue and beer served by two local beauties. I couldn't resist it and had my photograph taken with them after John pleaded with them to, "Keep my granddad happy and have your picture taken with him." I got my own back later when he was having his photo taken by the local media while I sang, "Who ate all the pies? Who ate all the pies? You fat bastard, you fat bastard, who ate all the pies?" Apart from that, it was a great experience mixing with the fans and more than a bit chastening to hear how much they knew of the English game and its players. You couldn't help but wonder what the next hundred years will bring for them.

Then Juan whisked us up the coast to Con Con and a great seafood restaurant perched on the rocks overlooking the Pacific. It was simply gorgeous in every sense, the sun just warm enough and the great ocean behaving itself to leave the seagulls and toucans to their own seafood. Just when you thought things couldn't get better, Juan introduced us to a passing Elias Figueroa, arguably Chilé's greatest ever player of former days. It was sublime.

Early evening, and THE big one: Everton V Universidad de Chilé in the first leg semi final play off. Beforehand, Paul presented the CD Everton directors with an inscribed silver salver and the words, "On behalf of Bill Kenwright, chairman, the board of directors, shareholders and all Everton supporters, I would like to present Señor Antonio Bloise with this silver salver to honour Everton Football Club Chilé on the occasion of their centenary celebrations and wish you well for the next hundred." At half time John went on to the pitch to present Ricardo with the joint Everton banner with the words, "Once an Evertonian, twice an Evertonian," in Spanish and English.

Universidad brought thousands of fans with them, and they easily made most noise and threw most of the streamers, bottles and oranges.

The match followed roughly the same pattern as the previous one, but without the same amount of chances to Everton. Both sides hit the goal framework - Everton the bar, Universidad the post. Conjeco looked Everton's best player again and dominated midfield. Up front, Miralles played like a plonker with a first touch to rival Brett Angel or Mick Lyons. Universidad didn't look like they had much to offer through the middle but they did make some progress down both wings. It looked to be heading for a 0-0 draw until the final minute when a goalmouth scramble ended with Miralles of all people getting a headed touch on it for the winner. Cue wild celebrations and handshakes and hugs all round. I thought if they could avoid an early goal in the second leg they stood a good chance of getting to the final.

It was a perfect birthday.

Day Six, Thursday, 25th June 2009.

In the morning we set off by bus for the 110 kilometres journey to Julio's home in the village of El Melon up in the mountains. En route we saw the first signs of poverty but none of it was anywhere near the absolute grinding misery you can see elsewhere in the world. The roads and tunnels were first class and some of the scenery was beautiful. A couple of hours and several stops later we discharged onto the pavement of the village. No sooner had we gathered than a red British style fire tender arrived complete with flashing lights and "Merseyside Fire Brigade" emblazoned on its side. Wonderfully, this was our transport to Julio's place. It turned out he arranged for it and others from Cheshire to be transported to Chilé after they were finished with in England. So he does a good deal more than own and run the Valparaiso restaurant in Hardman Street. He's an honorary consul for his country too. Presumably that's why he told us the story of a confrontation between a Chiléan football fan and the heartily disliked Argentinian fans. It seems the Argies told him that Chilé was shite, to which the cool response was, "Maybe. But at least we eat."

It took us another half hour to motor to Julio's farm in the foothills of the Andes. It is a lovely site, but remote and accessible only along a rutted track that must be a nightmare during the rainy season. You wondered how the fire tender was going to turn around and exit. The smell of food coming from the kitchen was so beguiling I was suddenly hit by a wave of hunger I haven't felt for a long time. Inside, a wood burning stove generated enough heat to keep a squad warm. Local friends too were invited in. One lady said the village contained four girls for every male, so would we be interested in staying? Outside, a mud oven was burning wood, while more heat was provided from wood burning in a metal drum. All food except a huge tureen of seafood soup was transferred from the kitchen to the oven. The potatoes had only been picked that morning and were so tasty and different you felt they were from another planet. The combination of that and the clear air was utterly irresistible. Local wine - so much better than the stuff you get in the local supermarket or corner shop back home - was passed around and soon had the assembled company relaxed and chatting away. Darkness fell, more photographs and laughter. It was sheer joy. It all went over far too quickly. There aren't words in the English language to express your gratitude for such an evening.

A taxi was called mid-evening and we set out for the return journey. It took half the time of the bus journey and dropped us off in the square at Viña Del Mar. A nightcap was called for so we trooped down to Bar Africa and occupied a corner booth. At which point our very own sawn-off version of Steve McQueen managed to knock over a bottle of wine and distract attention from the vital task of naming the actors who played The Magnificent Seven. As usual, the only one nobody could get was Brad Dexter. After which the evening fell off the end of the world and into alcohol hell. Eventually we worked up enough willpower to stroll - alright, stagger - back to the hotel pursued by the usual pack of dogs patrolling the streets at that time of night. They're never aggressive but there's no question they look dead sinister just padding silently along next to you. Or maybe it's because by then alcohol was doing its paranoid worst. They only disappeared when we got in sight of the hotel. By the time I hit the sack I was ready to go unconscious for a week.

Day Seven, Friday, 26th June 2009.

We were due at the Centro Educativo school for disadvantaged children in the early morning and had to set out in two taxis. Once there, we were greeted by director Guillermo Toledo, councillor Jaime Bara and teacher Hector Muñoz and other members of staff. Pupils were assembled in the schoolyard to examine the gringos and to see if they approved or not. The kids were terrific and quite unrestrained in everything they did. You couldn't help wondering how they were dealing with their own problems and how the future would work out for them. Despite their obvious lack of apprehension they still managed to look as vulnerable as any other group of kids.

Four male pupils then went through a demonstration of gymnastics and twisting and turning that had my back twingeing even as a mere spectator. Next up, a display of national costumes and dancing that was exquisite. Finally, a small orchestra from the Lord Cochrane Colegio gave us a performance of "Ode to Joy" to close out a demonstration of what would be possible with more school funding. John delivered a speech in Spanish that had the kids rolling around, and then Anne handed over a cheque for a thousand pounds for the school fund. After that, we visited each classroom and had pictures taken with a cluster of grinning and cheeky - but well mannered - pupils in each. John ribbed them there weren't enough Evertonianos amongst them before we retreated to a little reception with the staff and more photographs.

I don't have the patience or the vocation to be a teacher, which is why I greatly admire those who do. I can think of no greater challenge. In this case, despite all the difficulties, staff and pupils morale seemed remarkably high. It was a privilege to spend an all-too-short time with them.

Taxis then took us back once again to the old CD Everton offices where Anne presented a glassware set to Jorge Miranda to add to their memorabilia room. After which, I walked with Paul around the nearest elevated part of the older city, while John, Anne and James got off on a hair-raising bus journey to view Neruda's house La Sebastiana. Later, a welcome afternoon siesta and an early evening dinner at the Admanita restaurant, where we were joined by Luis, and I shared a great chateaubriand with Paul. The evening closed out with a walk up Avenidas Valparaiso and a couple of beers in a bar en route.

Day Eight, Saturday, 27th June 2009.

It was time to say farewell to Viña Del Mar and return to Santiago for the semi final second leg against Universidad. We signed out of the hotel at nine o'clock and caught the bus for the two hours return journey to the capital through the countryside. The best and most spectacular part of the journey came as we neared Santiago and could see it against the Andean background of snow frosted mountains. At a distance it was the best possible illustration of the combined effect of the inversion layer and the great rocky wall containing the atmosphere hanging over the city. A thick grey line of smog poised over the urban sprawl and looked even grubbier against the pristine whiteness of snow. In a matter of minutes we would be breathing it in.

For some reason the bus terminal is located in the suburbs, not in the city centre, so we had to get a taxi to the same Hotel Santa Lucia. Checked in and unpacked, we went for lunch and a reunification with Juan before heading up to the Estadio Nacional for the match. Juan pulled diplomatic rank during a frisson of challenges from the local bizzies at various ticket check points before we finally got in. We were in the main stand in the "diplomatic section," which had larger seats plus a cup holder in the arm rest, and the only roof to keep off any rain that might appear. Peons elsewhere had to take their chances.

The stadium setting in the suburbs is surely the most stunning on the planet. From our seats the scene was dominated, not by the 70,000 capacity stadium itself - of no great architectural merit - but by the Andes as a sunlit backdrop. As the afternoon wore on into early evening the sun's changing position illuminated the mountains from different angles. And if that wasn't breathtaking enough the final low angle light display at sunset left you speechless.

So did the match, because we lost it 3-1 and were never really in it. Before the game I had said we mustn't concede an early goal. Well, we didn't - we let in two, in the eighth minute and another ten minutes later, both of them preventable. Universidad had several chances before that, including an incredible miss when their man dribbled diagonally right through the penalty area, switched passes, and then hit the post from four metres. While we were celebrating an amazing escape Universidad got the ball back and it ended up in the net while were grinning at each other in relief. The second and leading goal on aggregate came with a laconic move through the middle and an equally laconic defence stood by while Uni did the necessary with a low shot into the bottom left corner. Apart from a couple of free kicks we did little but defend for most of the time. Playing wise, it looked bleak.

Early in the second half all hope appeared to disappear when Miralles did an impressive imitation of a knobhead when he got himself deservedly sent off. He had been tussling with their defence all afternoon. Nothing dirty, just the usual pushing and shoving and occasional clip of the ankles from both sides. Then he won a free kick in the centre circle and as their centre back went past he stuck an elbow in his ribs, and right in front of the referee too. It was a crazy thing to do. Naturally, he got a red. But the game wasn't over after all. Not long after little thirty eight years old veteran Jaime set off on a solo run through the middle toward the Uni goal, they backed off and he got to the edge of the D before letting loose a rocket into their 'keeper's top left corner. It screamed in. If it stayed like that we were through on away goals. Alas.

The game was finally settled when Uni's big centre forward got his head onto a long left wing cross and nodded it over a stranded 'keeper. All their goals had come through the middle, the very place I saw as strongest during the first two matches. Just shows, in footy you should take nothing for granted.

The official estimate of the gate was 25,000 but it looked more than that to me, possibly as much as 33-35,000. CD Everton brought about 2,500 with them, and though they made valiant efforts from the away enclave they were simply swamped by the non-stop singing and noise from the home lot. Normally I am very leery about humans acting as a crowd. As we know from our English footy history, it can lead all too often to a mass group acting like a single rabid dog in midday heat. But you have to say the sight of a huge crescent of Uni fans jumping up and down and singing is quite a performance. In this case, even more so in a half-empty stadium. John had joined Ricardo in the away section and then somehow blagged his way past a highly suspicious female steward for the last few minutes of the game in the best seats.

Afterwards, Martine had a spot booked for us in - and you'll like this - "Chilé's First And Only Irish Pub." That's right, we'd come thousands of miles to end up in a Plastic Paddy Pub. Juan must have had something to do with it because he actually likes Guinness, that disgusting sump-oil of all alcohol. Anyway, we sank a few of whatever each of us quaffed. Then Juan Pablo arrived to take us to his place, so we had to bid farewell to Juan and give him our deepest thanks for everything he has done for us in Chilé and England. I am quite sure we will all meet again.

Juan Pablo was bearing up well to the heartbreak of defeat, of so-near-yet-so-far. Back at the beautiful apartment he shares with his good lady Fran we had even more libations to cushion the blow. Which was enough to do me in. Volume alcohol doesn't agree with me in the way it does with Paul and John. At the end of the evening I was just about able to say, "Thank you," to our always gracious hosts before falling into a taxi that was mercifully playing Mozart for the fifteen minutes journey through torrential rain. The heavens had opened up to sanitise Santiago's air.

Day Nine, Sunday, 28th June 2009.

If ever we needed a day to recover........this was it. And that's what we did. I am glad to say we had a rest from chasing around. I can only speak for myself when I say it was never more welcome. I was shattered.

We prepared for the journey to Argentina planned for the next day.

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