Original Art by ModoGráfico

Tuesday, June 19. Some 20 people are lining outside the old cafeteria next to Mérida Hospital’s main entrance. Some are wearing the white coats you usually see running through the overcrowded halls of the ER, others wear yellow and blue jerseys. Chicho, the old Italian owner of the place, isn’t selling Harina PAN and there’s no line because points of sale are busted. Everyone’s there to get a glimpse of the two 64’’ flat screens inside, the only television sets broadcasting the World Cup match between Colombia and Japan in the whole hospital.

Every four years, Chicho makes sure to let everyone know he’s got the World Cup fever, and this year he overcame both the economic crisis and the absence of his beloved Azzurra to keep the tradition afloat: A billboard outside the cafeteria shows all the participating teams, and Chicho’s employees update it every day to show the latest results, posters of previous World Cups and a giant toon wolf called Zabivaka, this year’s World Cup mascot, dolls up the entrance. It’s obvious Chicho spent good time and money in the decoration, but the bet is paying off.

Chicho makes sure to let everyone know he’s got the World Cup fever, and this year he overcame both the economic crisis and the absence of his beloved Azzurra to keep the tradition afloat.

Not a single person fits inside the place. All tables are taken and people standing fill every gap, a sharp contrast to the growing desolation I had gotten used to everytime I walked past the place. I’m one of the lucky ones who, after buying a couple empanadas, managed to find a seat half an hour before.

Japan’s first goal and the red card shown to Colombian defender, Carlos Sánchez, quickly remind me that even today, Venezuela still harbors foreigners. The two tables in front of mine explode in a concert of swearing and wails; they’re fully occupied by Colombian resident doctors taking advantage of exchange distortions to get really cheap post-graduate education here. You can spot the unmistakable yellow of the Colombian National Team jersey under their coats.

This isn’t only happening at the hospital. Every supermarket, café and restaurant has some World Cup related decorations on display, from football-themed lemon pies at the local Croatian bakery, to drawings of the trophy and Zabivaka adorning stores. Since June 14, all everyone talks about is the World Cup, the historic victory of Mexico over Germany, Argentina’s draw with Iceland and how they turned pools into shreds. It’s all about Cristiano Ronaldo’s incredible performance, or Neymar’s disappointing debut.

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Photos: Darío Sosa

Venezuelans’ countless problems move to the background, nobody has time for politics or economics, all people care about is the frivolity of football, and I find it amazing.

The crisis is still there of course, and in a country where most people can’t afford to go out, the multitudes seen at Chicho’s Café are the exception, not the rule. The 25 monthly minimum wages needed to buy the official Adidas tournament ball I used to get as a birthday gift every four years since I was 12, are also a perfect reminder of the hyperinflationary scourge. Official national team jerseys disappeared from the few sport stores still open (no one can afford them) and even the ambulant peddlers selling the Chinese copies have vanished. The tiny banners attached to the windows of cars, one of the most typical sightings of World Cup-times, have turned into a rare reminder of merrier times.

Blackouts are here to stay, too. The never ending electric crisis kept me from enjoying Cristiano Ronaldo’s second goal against Spain two weeks ago, and it forced many people out of their houses looking for a place with a power generator.

But perhaps the harsher proof of how unavoidable the crisis is, is the disappearance of the World Cup’s Panini Official Sticker Album. There’s a kiosk in the corner before my house and, as a kid, I remember rushing to it every day after getting home from school. I’d buy one of the shiny packages holding five stickers, each one with the face of one of the 736 players from the 32 different teams competing, the shredded remains of paper from the open packages piled up on the kitchen table as I’d stack all my repeated stickers and take them to school the next day to exchange them with my friends. I still have the 2006 and 2010 albums, both completed. Back then, it was a nice and totally affordable tradition, I’d buy the packets with the change I spared from the school’s cafeteria and, if needed, my dad would give me some money and it wouldn’t mean a complete disarrangement of the family’s budget. By 2014, affording the tradition was complicated.

Venezuelans’ countless problems move to the background, nobody has time for politics or economics, all people care about is the frivolity of football, and I find it amazing.

Today, it’s impossible.

Completing the album is ridiculously expensive. Like Carlos Hernández mentioned before, you’d need a month’s full wage to buy a single packet of five stickers. You can also get a box with 100 packets (that don’t guarantee the album’s completion) for 234,000,000 Bs, about 100$ at the black market exchange rate, or the minimum wage of six and a half years.

This year, the free digital version will have to do.

But I mean, whatever, man. At least we have something different to think about rather than Maduro’s next disastrous announcement on live TV.

To some, the fact that the World Cup is so important in a country that has never qualified to play in it is a bit dumb. But I’m glad that Chicho invests so much time embellishing his cafeteria and that some fans still put the tiny flags on their cars. I’m glad we still make the effort to enjoy the little things that 20 years of chavismo haven’t (completely) taken away from us.

Jorge Valdano, World Champion with Argentina, 1986, once said that football is the most important thing among the unimportant things… And in this post-Apocalypse Venezuela, boy, was he right.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. It is good that these Colombian doctors realize that one of the achievements of the Bolivarian revolution is to give education priority and to be accessible to all, regardless of their social status. It would be very valuable for Venezuela, that the Colombians return so much generosity to the Chavista Revolution

      • I don’t think he’s joking. I think all Chavistas believe that the sun comes up in the east because of the Eternal Commander. And, naturally, the Chavistas expect some generosity and benevolence from someone (everyone) in return for that sun coming up each morning. Because that is how Chavismo rolls.

      • By the end of 2018, an estimated 70% of students over 2 years will have dropped out of schooling due to: prohibitively-expensive school materials (books/notebooks/etc.)/ clothing (uniforms/shoes)/transportation; lack of teachers; and lack of food/physical energy.

    • Colombia HAS been generously returning Venezuelan generosity to Venezuela ever since Chavez–FARC/ELN camps within Venezuelan borders, extorting agropecuario producers and running copious amounts of narcotics through Venezuelan borders, enriiching the Chavista political/mlitary elite.

  2. Kudos to the writer.

    It’s a real balancing act commenting on the Venezuelan disaster and the irrelevancies…or significance…of the World Cup within this context.

    I think he did a fantastic, accurate job of doing that.

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