Soccer in the World’s Most Violent City: The Game
Ryan O'Hanlon is down in Honduras to cover the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team's opening World Cup qualifying match
The bus ride to the stadium is like every other bus ride through this place: an uncomfortable kind of third-world tourism. We’re in this big, dark, cold transport, and we’re wearing shoes and button-down shirts, holding bags with computers. Outside, there are a lot of people without those things, and all these places we pass by—an all-purpose store with a male mannequin in a speedo and advertising for giant carpets called USA Factory, a McDonald’s branded with a faded cartoon of Ronald McDonald spinning a basketball on his hand, a place called Robert Tire—seem and are funny to me, but probably make sense to everyone watching us as we go by.
Game OnRyan O'Hanlon will file dispatches from Honduras, where he is covering the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team's opening World Cup qualifying match, all week. #1. Why Are You Here? #2: The Great Mall of San Pedro Sula
Earlier this morning, we had breakfast with—or at least, near; it was a rectangular table thing, so some people were far away—Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. He answered a lot of questions, from things ranging from the future of Landon Donovan (probably the greatest American player ever, who is currently on an open-ended, maybe-forever hiatus from the sport), the country’s failed bid for the 2022 World Cup, and the near-impossibility of switching the current Major League Soccer schedule (starts in March, ends in November) to match with the major European leagues (starts in August, ends in mid-to-late May).
He seemed a funny-enough guy—at least, he made me laugh, like, more than three times. Toward the end, he was asked a question about Americans in particular being content with just being average on a world scale, happy making a living as professional soccer players, and not really concerned with getting better. He didn’t answer the question, but he did say that American players—and just Americans in general—are more-coddled than players from other countries because America is America. For the best Brazilian or Argentinean players, a successful career is often a fight out of poverty.
The conversation continued for another 10 or so minutes after that. Everyone went back to typing out notes on their laptops. Others checked their iPhones to make sure they were still recording. And I took a sip of my orange juice through a straw.
WE GOT TO THE stadium three hours before kickoff—so early because the stadium was supposedly going to fill up (meaning, seats are full, hallways are full, stairways are full, and there’s barely enough air for everyone to breathe). Cars started parking about a mile out, just filling up those empty green fields we saw yesterday without anyone directing anything but also without any real noticeable chaos. (That’s how things were all day.) Fans yelled at our bus, not in a menancing way, just in the way that you yell because this is one of the few times when that is a socially acceptable thing to do.
Locals sold Honduran flags and gear all the way from the hotel to the stadium—the amount and extent increasing as we got closer. The jerseys were all bootleg. Honduras wears Joma; these didn’t have a brand. Most of the vendors had a couple American flags, too, which wasn’t all that strange because it’s worth a shot/always diversify. But there were a few Honduran kids in the stadium holding out a big red-white-and-blue flag while wearing Joma Honduras shirts. They wanted to get on TV, I guess, because their buddy, a sort of chubby kid with a side-part and some overly-gold, definitely-frost-tinted, and possibly-women’s sunglasses held up a sign with a picture of a dead Uncle Sam (his eyes were “x’s”) getting hit in the face with a soccer ball that read: “HOY SI TIO SAM.”
This was two rows in front of me, and a row in front of most of the other journalists, right in line with midfield. They gave us two rows of seats under an overhang, but only one with a counter for computers. One thing we had: many outlets. One thing we didn’t have: much Internet. The stadium Wi-Fi was mostly not-present and totally spotty whenever it was.
So, most of waiting for the game was listening to a tiny, all-bass-heavy selection of music on shuffle: one straight-up mariachi-type song, a pop-ballad centered around the word “volveremos,” something by the Honduran Ke$ha and the Honduran Akon—seriously, both of their whiny-but-not-actually-whining voices, just in another language—and some kind of Honduran soccer anthem (I understood “seleccion,” the Spanish word used to refer to national teams) that sounded like a commercial for a waterpark. And the majority of the music was this last song. I still have it in my head: Starts with a bicycle horn. Guy yells. Response: HONDOORAS. Repeat that three times. Then some verses sung in this happy-battle-chant way, followed by—always fucking followed by—“vamos vamos todos.” I’m pretty sure if I ever hear those two words as those three words ever again, I’ll start sweating and immediately feel like I have a laptop on my lap no matter where I am. I’m also not sure my body will ever again function properly without the rhythm of that song to go off of. We shall see.
The stadium was about two-thirds full when we arrived, and slowly filled up from there, the lower seats last. (There’s a barbed wire fence circling the inside of the stands, so if you sit too close, your view is actually pretty terrible.) There were four of those inflatable people with long arms and legs on each corner of the field. (Sponsored by Claro, obviously.) And behind both of the goals were a bunch of other giant inflatable things, including: a Salva Vida beer bottle, a Coke bottle, a fat cowboy in a Honduras jersey, a superhero guy with spiked-back hair, and an orange ball labeled “Lotto.”
Other pre-game entertainment: a man slowly riding around the track on a mountain bike, wearing a helmet with a Honduran flag. Another man flying a blimp (you know the sponsor) with a string, running across the field. A third man in a cowboy hat singing and playing guitar at midfield, flanked by four Honduran women who were dancing, I guess, but basically just stepping forward and backward. (At one point, the mountain biker got off his bike—but kept his helmet on—and started grinding with the air in front of them.) Then there was a 60-piece high school marching band, all in Honduras jerseys, who were, honestly, kind of terrible, but did a reasonable-enough imitation of the standard high-school-marching-band-fight-song. Some women in traditional dresses danced to one side of the band, while a bunch of young boys in these feather wigs and these outfits that made it look like they were only wearing cloth diapers, just kind of stood on the other side and really limply shook these sticks they were holding.
Vendors sold whatever the hell they wanted. Unofficial Honduras gear—hats, scarves, jerseys, whatever—was everywhere, it seemed, and their weren’t any real official stadium refreshment stands. Rather, just a bunch of people with multiple-liter bottles of soda, their own grills, and their own coolers, who found some counter space out in the hallway. There were a few guys walking around with Little Caesar’s boxes and not yelling “pizza, pizza,” so I ate Church’s chicken, instead—some guy was selling boxes of around 11 fries, a drumstick, and a breast for $4—for the first time in my life. (Little known fact: fried chicken was invented in Honduras. Also: that is a lie.) They were selling carne asada at another makeshift stand, but the bathroom was just sort of vaguely a place for you to privately do your business and more of just a communal room where you did whatever you had to do—I saw a guy peeing on a shelf that was also a urinal—so that wasn’t an option. I also bought a bag of water, but never drank it because it was a bag of water.
I sat back down 15 minutes before kickoff and a hoard of riot police walked onto the field in masks, carrying shields, guns, and wearing neon-vests. Oh, yeah. The soccer game.
HONDURAS WON BECAUSE THEY scored more goals. That’s, um, how sports work, but it’s generally just how soccer games between two somewhat-similarly-talented teams are. Two teams play, and if they played the same exact way 10 more times, you’d get 10 different results. But at the same time, what happens is what happens, and it can’t just be dismissed because there are only 10 games in this tournament.
Clint Dempsey, the American who didn’t talk to anyone, scored the first goal. A long ball from Jermaine Jones (born in Germany, but a naturalized American) came in over Dempsey’s shoulder, and, before it hit the ground, he caught it about as well as he could with his right foot, sending it into the far corner, side netting. It was suddenly shocking because it looked so easy, even though it’s not. (Willie Mays caught a ball with a glove over his shoulder, and people think it’s the greatest moment in the history of Western Civilization. Dempsey kicked a ball with his foot, people.) So, it was kind of like, “Oh, wow, I guess that just happened?” and then the stadium was silent for the first time all day. The Americans celebrated, but it felt like we were watching it at some crappy bar because there was no sound, and it was 90 degrees.
Maybe because it was in the afternoon, and it was so damn hot and so many of these guys play in countries where it’s winter now, but the game was just kind of sluggish up to that point. Even after Dempsey’s goal, the stadium was sort of muted. All the same noise—offbeat drums, random horns, stray yelling—just a few levels lower on the volume scale.
Then Honduras scored: Juan Garcia on a one-in-100 bicycle kick from 12 yards out, and the entire stadium shrieked at once. It wasn’t that growl you hear at American sporting events, but this high-pitched yelp, something like relief, coming from 30,000-plus people. The goal really was great—Klinsmann called it “probably the goal of the century here” post-game—and the father of that kid with the Uncle Sam sign—he also of the side-part—looked back at me, shaking his head, basically saying “Ohhhhh, yeahhhhh, motherfucker,” and then flipped his wrists up and down to imitate the bicycle kick in the least athletic way possible.
Again, from then on the sounds stayed the same—chaotic drums, untraceable horn spurts, and yelling-just-to-do-some-yelling—but they rose a couple decibel levels after the goal, and never dropped back down after. To give you a sense: the ref blew the first-half whistle, and the stadium MC came on the PA system, bellowing something to the effect of “Vamos Honduras.” But the ball was on the other side of the field when the ref blew his whistle, and the players near it (a few American defenders, and the Honduran attackers) kept playing. Then the ball got kicked out of bounds, and they still kept playing. One of the Hondurans grabbed the ball to throw it in, and then they played for maybe five more seconds before the ref was able to run over and finally stop it.
The bike horn honked and “VAMOS VAMOS TODOS” started up again.
THIS GAME WAS A national holiday. A guy next to me in the press section was wearing a Honduras jersey, all the Honduran cameramen were cheering for Honduras, and a bunch of the journalists we saw yesterday at the press conference, trudging through the mixed zone and taking pictures of the brief snippet of training we saw, were wearing jerseys at the game. It’s a bizarre thing from an American press perspective, sure, because impartiality seems important and it definitely is. But I don’t know if that really matters here.
Yesterday, the stadium, like I said, was this beautiful thing, but only really beautiful because of all the stuff you could project onto it and with how it contrasted with everything around it. But for this game it was this living thing, in that it kept together tens of thousands of living people, who were almost all—the “U-S-A” chants of the 50 American fans were drowned out pretty quickly—hoping for the same thing to happen. And it did.
A few minutes after a stadium-wide “SI SE PUEDE” chant, Honduras scored what ended up as the winning goal. A long ball split the American defense, a Honduran attacker beat American keeper Tim Howard to the ball and touched it toward the center of the goal. Omar Gonzalez, a 24-year-old still playing in Major League soccer and who was playing in his first-ever competitive game for the United States, hesitated for a second, and was beaten to the ball by Jerry Bengston, who slid it into the open net.
Food, water, ripped up cardboard, basically anything throw-able, fell down from the upper levels. The stadium shrieked as one again, and the base sound level moved up even higher. Journalists cheered with fans. Two people made out a couple of rows in front of me. That imaginary Uncle Sam murderer in the J-Lo shades jumped up and down, just like everyone else. The stadium wasn’t moving, but everyone in it, except for about 25 of us, was.
The game ended 11 minutes later, and that shriek came up one more time. The drums kept beating, a pattern something like the drunken footsteps of a guy walking home, and if you had a horn, you blew into it. Then for a few seconds, everyone chanting together: SI SE PUDO. And then they left, because the game was over, and even with a game like this, you’ve still got to get home before the rest.
IT’S TOUGH FOR THE U.S., this loss, because they have better players and this game was a big deal as far as U.S. soccer in the media goes. At his press conference, which I watched, sitting in front of a dozen or so TV cameras, on the floor, five feet in front of the coach, Jurgen Klinsmann said all the things you’d expect him to say. (While seated between two five-foot-tall blow-up bottles of Coke and Salva Vida beer. They also had beer on the press conference table, which American officials quickly removed.) The team needs to play better. The team will play better. He’ll make changes if he needs to. And etc.
The players took a similar tone after the game. You’re bummed when you lose, but Tim Howard, today’s captain, talked about how there are nine more games to play and there were always going to be bumps in the process. And this bump surely gets amplified with this being the first game.
The U.S. came here, and they left soon after the game with just as many points as before. It’s not all that much different after this loss; there’s just some more pressure. For Honduras, it’s a similar situation: a great start, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. They expect to win all of their games in a place like this anyway.
In short, it was just like every first-game-of-a-tournament there ever was.
When the game ended, a row of fans turned around and shook hands with some of the journalists behind them. One woman chanted U-S-A in my face while I walked through the stadium down to the press conference, and another guy smiled at me and said, “Sorry, sorry.” For The Murder Capital of the World, I should’ve been shanked in broad daylight, my laptop and phone stolen, body dumped onto the walkway outside the stadium among the Little Caesar’s boxes that one guy was collecting and stacking up to recycle later on. (I’ve been choked by an English fan after trying to shake his hand when his team tied the U.S. in the 2010 World Cup. And we left a Mexico-Guatemala game early because a Mexican spilled a beer on my brother and then threatened to kill him.) That didn’t happen, though, as the existence of this thing you’re reading would suggest. And hell, a guy apologized to me.
After talking with some of the players at a less-full, more-depressing mixed zone, we got on the coach bus for the last time and rode back to the hotel behind the escort. No one was dead, which was good. And no one outside the bus really paid any attention this time. Some people yelled, while most did nothing and just sat on their cars or stood on the grass in the middle of the street, presumably headed somewhere, eventually, but not right then. Things will get better and they’ll get worse, but Honduras had just won a soccer game.