JUN
26
2009
Mickey Blue Eyes...
SOUTH AMERICAN DIARY Part 1
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"Sunset and evening star,
And one clear calls for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea."
ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON, "Crossing the Bar" (1889).

Foreword

Some years ago I woke up in - I think - the Peachtree Hotel in San Diego. It was 3.00 a.m. and I had checked in about three hours earlier after an umpteenth business trip to the USA took in six cities in twelve days. Or it might have been twelve cities in six days. Or some other arithmetic mix. At any rate, when I woke up mid-morning, and travel-groggy, I didn't know what country I was in, let alone what city or hotel I had laid my head. It was a salutary moment. I decided I'd had enough. The firm could shove their "luxury" hotel suites up their expense account. As soon as the trip was finished I was going back to the studio to hand my notice in. I was going home to my beloved Liverpool to settle down for good and all. And that's what I did. I finally ran out of patience with airports, connecting flights and the attendant scheduled and unscheduled nonsense of air travel. The novelty had worn off years before. There are many things better in life than hurtling around the planet sealed inside a partly air-conditioned metal and plastic tube. Enough was enough. It is one of the best decisions I made.

So when it came to the prospect of a South American odyssey I thought about it several times before deciding to go. Like all good wine, I travel badly. Paul first broached it to me months ago as a friendship meeting with CD Everton in Chilé promoted by the Ruleteros Society to celebrate the 100th anniversary of our South American counterparts. It then expanded to include meetings with two other Evertons in Argentina and Uruguay. Who could resist such a clarion call? In the end the tipping factor was the respect I held for the hard work of John Shearon and Tony Heslop when they founded the society and kept it going through sheer dedication. I knew there must have been times when they felt like it wasn't worth the effort. But eventually their voices were heard and respected on both sides of the Atlantic as well-intentioned and courteous. They kept at it in the face of apathy from fans and clubs. The least I could do was provide some small support by being there. After all, I had done none of the organising or research and communications labour of John, Tony and Paul. For me it would be a pleasant jaunt, an amble in South America. One previous visit to the continent was limited to a quick in-and-out business trip of a single day to Mexico City years ago.

Needless to say, the Ruleteros Society ambition is for an Everton V Everton friendly game, surely a historic prospect to relish. It seems to me there is a sense of inevitability about it, merely a matter of time. I hope John and Tony don't fall at the final fence. They have been wonderfully patient in their dealings for many years - a world away from the silliness manufactured by a tiny number of self-styled "fans." Thankfully, there are no back-entry, self-appointed fuehrers or barrow-boys in the Ruleteros Society.

Day One, Friday 19TH June through Saturday 20th June 2009.

The planned outward leg of the itinerary was Manchester-London-Madrid-Santiago. The total travel time was twenty-four hours after you factored in the horror of airport check in times and other delays, which anticipation was enough to disturb your breakfast on its way through your digestion tract. Originally the troop (troupe, if you're in showbiz mode) was due to be eight strong, but there were three dropouts. Four of us assembled at Manchester Airport - Anne, James, Paul and me - for BA 7683 to London at 1.25 pm. It came round soon enough, and it wasn't long before the Airbus 320 trundled along the traffic runways, paused and then stood on its tail before cranking up sufficient thrust under and over its wings and along the fuselage to shovel enough lift for an acute upward angle on a Westerly heading into the low cloud cover. The target was six hundred-odd metres altitude at over 700 kph. A few minutes into the flight there was a sharp bank toward the South East, bright sunlight slanted in from port and the airplane was on its way to Heathrow - that horror of a way station, long abandoned by me in favour of Schipol. An hour later we discharged at Terminal 5 and traipsed the labyrinth to Terminal 3 for the flight to Madrid. Once in Heathrow, I couldn't wait to get out.

Then that most dreaded of flying experiences, a four hour layover in an airport you can't stand. It was even worse for Paul because he nursed an aching jaw after having a tooth out a few days previously. Still, we managed to assemble for a few libations in one of the rip-off, over-priced bars somewhere in The Heathrow Retail Experience. Eventually John joined us from a separate journey. Suitably anaesthetised, we got up the gang plank of IB 7447 and sat atop the wings of a Boeing 757 that roared into the darkening sky over the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay before flopping down in a wet Madrid at Terminal 4S, which is a splendid lesson in design for all you budding airport architects. Then yet another trek through an endless barn-like space punctuated by travelators and a steady stream of still more travel-crumpled aerial punters en route to almost everywhere.

As we sat on the floor outside gate R7 John said, "The check in girl told me the flight is empty so we can stretch out." I looked at a queue stretching over a hundred metres from the gate and observed that it looked more like it was packed tighter than a gnat's arse. But John was ready with, "It's a big airplane." And so it was - an Airbus 340/600. But it was almost overflowing onto the wings. Even John's high metabolic voice box couldn't talk him out of this one. His goose was cooked and Paul made sure it was done to a turn for the rest of the journey.

Still, there were some useful compensations during the thirteen hours journey. One of them was the presence of loads of olive-skinned, brown-eyed, raven-haired beauties with shapes to short circuit your pace-maker. Actually, the long journey wasn't nearly as bad as I feared. After take-off the route took us over Portugal and out into the Atlantic before veering South and brushing an invisible North West coast of Africa. Then it was the deep blackness of an Atlantic night and no visual relief at all. I fell asleep and woke up three hours later midway through a showing of "The Maltese Falcon," just as Humphrey Bogart was straightening the snap brim of his fedora, berating the very large obese form of Sidney Greenstreet, grinning Peter Lorre into abject surrender and decking Elisha Cooke Junior with a "punch" that couldn't have dented a paper bag. They don't make 'em like that anymore, thank Christ. I went back to sleep.

Two hours later I woke up again as the Airbus crossed the South American coast somewhere over north Brazil and headed South West down and across the centre of the continent. We were only half way there. Ten thousand metres below us were the usual concentrated lights of large settlements, then..............nothing but deepest ebony. My, but that is one VERY large piece of real estate the Monroe Doctrine tries to control. But time passed quickly and the sun rose slowly to chase the airplane tail fin. The landscape began to turn surreal through breaks in the cloud cover. The combination of acute angled light, ground mist, forest and mountains looked as though Stanley Kubrick had designed it for one of his movies. I was looking forward to my first glimpse of the Andes. As we neared them the ground began to assume the form of ripples rising to meet tectonic tortion from the Pacific plate. But alas, cloud cover obscured the mountain range and we saw hardly anything on the approach and landing. Touching down, Santiago Airport looked wetter, colder and less visible than Manchester Airport in December. Oh well, it WAS Winter in Chilé.

The airplane slid to a stop next to a quite smart airport named after Arturo Merino Benitez. Suitable derogatory remarks were made about this disgracefully poor choice of names as we joined a long queue to get through Immigration. Faces everywhere reflected international bafflement at required form filling, but there's never any point contesting these things. All you can do is be patient. In any case, nothing is worse than the bureaucratic (and useless) paranoia you meet at the gates of the USA. We were met by Julio, owner of the Valparaiso restaurant in Hardman Street, who is devoted to the cause of his country in our city and hosts most of the Ruleteros Society gatherings. Once through the entry song-and-dance act we fell into a minibus organised by who else but John and set off in soaking drizzle from low grey clouds for the Hotel Santa Lucia in San Antonio, Santiago. In the conditions it was quite impossible to form any reliable first impression. We could have been anywhere on the planet.

The budget hotel was friendly, clean and welcome after a journey that left you goggle-eyed with the unhealthy experience of being strapped into an airborne seat for so long. A quick shower, assembly in the lobby and out onto the streets for an exploratory amble through Santiago.

The first thing to say is that you are acutely aware you are not in Europe even though most of the architecture is derived from a colonial past and a "global" economic present. At first it's hard to put your finger on the cultural reason. You just KNOW. So we strolled down to the Plaza de Armas and into the Catedral Metropolitana, a quite bewildering centre-city mix of neoclassical and baroque architecture. Whenever I walk through a religious building it reinforces my instinct that rich ecclesiastic built form must have been the most intimidating of all religious propaganda aimed at working-class souls. Even now some of it is simply breathtaking. Then a stroll down to the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino and its exhibits of far from primitive MesoAmerican tribal cultures almost wiped out by colonial gangsters. Then a walk down to the Plaza de la Constitucion and La Moneda, a place of still-visceral memories for those of us of left wing persuasion. A monument to Salvador Allende stands in one corner of the square to remind us every time the BBC lies about how he was killed by forces encouraged by Nobel Peace Prize "winner" Henry Kissinger. John informed us Allende used to play for CD Everton when he was young. Then, irony on irony, his wife Hortensia was buried the day we arrived.

Suitably chastened, we went for a fresh seafood lunch in the covered central market. You have to say that the international reputation of Chilean seafood is well deserved. It is superb even in such a workaday setting.

Back in the hotel, a short siesta. After which, a metro journey out to the smart suburb of Las Condes and a meeting with Juan Pablo, BIG CD Everton fan, and his good lady Fran. From there, on to dinner and matchless hospitality and friendship with Juan (no relation) at his beautiful home. As we sat down with Juan's friends and family it quickly became obvious monetarist Juan was in a frame of mind to tackle anything we could throw at him, footy or politics or economics. He took it all in wonderfully melodramatic style. Since he and John - long established firm friends - strike sparks off each other all the rest of us could do was stoke the fire. By the end of the evening we had cracked lots of bottles of exquisite Chilean wine, devoured wonderful food and solved most of the world's economic and football problems. Well, at least until the sun came up again. In between fierce opinions there was enough time to sing Everton songs and celebrate a joint Everton candle lit cake. Juan's hospitality and warmth were matchless. By the time my head hit the pillow back in the hotel I had lost all traces of jet-lag.

Day Two. Sunday, 21st June 2009.

Match day, CD Everton V Deportiva Iquique in Viña del Mar. Quarter final play off, second leg. The first leg in Iquque had finished 2-2. Everton had only to draw 1-1 or win by one goal and they were through to the semi-final play off. So our party had to get from Santiago to the coastal city next to Valparaiso. After checking out we split into two groups for the journey. John, Paul and Anne set off with Juan in his 4 x 4 after stacking the back with our suitcases. James and I waited to meet Juan Pablo for the bus trip scheduled to take a couple of hours from Terminal de Buses Alameda. The buses are spotless Pullmans that leave every ten minutes for the coast so you never have any of the maddening waits associated with our own useless privatised bus "services." After clearing the suburbs and industrial estates we were out in hilly, wooded country with spectacular engineering a feature of the roads and tunnels. To cap it all, the sun came out and didn't disappear for our time in Viña, just warm enough to keep you comfortable.

The approach route to Viña skirted around the outskirts of Valparaiso and gave us our first glimpse of the mighty Pacific through gaps between the dozens of hills that form the World Heritage Site. Then, arrival in Viña's gridded streets and into the Bus Terminal, a quick walk down Avenue Valparaiso to meet everyone in Bar Africa, a few Escudo beers, a Pisco Sour and a satisfying mixed grill later we meandered through a neatly planted main square to the Hotel Quintaraga and the friendly greeting of the Italian immigrant owner Carlo, a product of the great European immigration waves of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was another inspired choice by John. So far everything was going swimmingly, no sweat, no worries, no irritations. All it needed was a win for CD Everton to seal the day.

Later, Juan collected us and drove us to the Sausalito stadium for the game. It's a beautiful setting next to a lake surrounded by small hills and a squad of armed police - I still can't get used to the sight of policemen with a side arm, never mind something a good deal heavier, or the body armour. But footy fans are the same the world over, flags, team shirts, colours, bright-eyed optimism everywhere, wide-eyed .kids full of the whole experience. I couldn't wait for the game. The stadium is modest and small with a capacity of 18,000, bowl shaped, one covered main stand and the remnants of a velodrome track circling the pitch; not a terraced house or steel shuttered shop or pub in sight. Nor can you buy alcohol in the ground. The final attendance was 7,200, with a small contingent of visiting Iquique fans who had braved the 1,820 kilometres and thirty six hours bus journey. All a bit different from an away match at the Mancs. The pre-match noise was incessant, backed by non-stop air horns, singing and jumping up and down behind one of the goals. Looking at the team sheets was more challenging than your average prem match. Names like Dalsasso, Rojas, Saavedra and Miralles somehow have a more romantic sound than Rodwell, Hibbert and Lescott, with no disrespect for our beloved Royal Blues. And the referee was named Jorge Osorio, distinctly better phonetics than Graham Poll or Clive fucking Thomas.

The Ruleteros opened in nervous mood but still managed to be more threatening than their opponents from the far north. Ten minutes into the game saw a quick right wing break that had the visiting defence in chaos, the goal keeper on the floor and a prompt lob toward an empty net. It just cleared the bar to a great shout of, "OyOOOOOO!" And that set off a wonderful jumping-up-and-down spectaculos. More attacks brought out two wonderful close saves from the pony-tailed Iquique 'keeper Naranjo. The main feature of the game for a visiting gringo like me was the difference in movement and ball control. How South Americans love to caress and cushion the ball before sending it on its way! Small wonder some Americanos find it difficult to adjust to the high velocity English game.

As time wore on it was impossible to notice the man of the match was Iquique's diminutive number ten, Edson Puch, a quite outstanding little man who has played for the national team. Despite his size he could twist and turn and muscle opponents much like Tim Cahill does and he caused problems every time he had the ball. I never once saw him give it away. Twice he slipped deadly passes through but his striker partner let him down on each occasion: Get yer cheque book out Bill! On balance, Everton should have been two or three up at half time, while Iquique could have stolen a couple themselves. Oddly, though the ball control was wonderful to watch, some of the passing was worse than League Two. You can't have everything. Meanwhile, Evertons' best player was number twenty, Cornejo, a lad carrying a bit too much weight but with enough determination to compensate. Apparently the Ruleteros idol is the Argentine striker, Ezekiel Miralles, all long hair and flamboyant gestures - and who missed a few sitters. Half time and no goals with the Ruleteros looking still nervous. I began to think uh-oh.

One of the objects of the trip was realised at half time when John, Paul, Anne and James were feted on the pitch and received celebratory pennants. I watched from the stands to see their reception from the fans, and you'll be pleased to hear it was spontaneous and very warm. In fact that was the way it was during our entire stay in Chilé. It couldn't have been better and it was just reward for all the patience and sheer graft of John and Tony over the years. Tony, you were sorely missed.

The inevitable happened about ten minutes after the break when Iquique got another breakaway and a flukey goal, and to rub sodium chloride in it was an ex-Everton player, Martell, who scored. He fizzed in a free kick wide left roughly from the corner of the box, it crossed over a clutch of desperate home and away heads, distracted Dalsasso and bounced gently into the net. You could have spit. Several players did. You wanted to, but then you thought of Wayne Rooney's contratemps and restrained yourself. Some things simply will not do. After all, we are English. Or something.

But the deficit didn't last long. As usual, outrage at adversity roused both team and crowd. Six minutes later an attack down the right brought a free kick a metre or so outside the box. Riveros took it left footed and bent it high and over the wall and it went in like an arrow through the top right corner. That really kicked off the air horns and dancing tempo. Iquique visibly wilted and the pressure stepped up. Free kicks increased in proportion to visitor desperation. Bodies thudded to the ground, gestures got wilder, tempers shorter, but it was never dirty, only more determined. There were eight bookings nonetheless.

A quarter hour after the equaliser Everton got a really smart winner and caught the visitors with their shorts tangled in their ankles. Iquique had had a small period of pressure and the ball ended up in the home 'keeper's hands - a quick throw out left, a sprint down the wing, an interchange of passes and Munoz was clear left side of the box and jabbed it home. Game shot. Iquique were never going to come back from that one despite a late flurry that had their 'keeper come up for free kicks and corners. During one Everton attack Miralles went down under a heavy challenge, and for no immediately apparent reason it all went off like a fire cracker. Everyone was on the pitch except the crowd. In a surreal scene, armed-to-the-teeth bizzies stood around doing nothing while players piled into each other. It took ages to sort out. Then to compound their misery, scorer Martell got sent off. As he left the field the fans did what fans the world over do........rushed to shout something horrible to a vanquished enemy. In this case it was, "Ciao, concho tu madre!" I asked John what it meant. He said, "It means 'Tara, go fuck your mother.'" Gosh, we're NEVER like that, are we?

So it was a good win that set up a two leg semi brilliantly against Universidad de Chile of Santiago. It's a contest to relish.

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