Watching the Game at Casa Portuguesa’s Half-Alive Restaurant in Maracay

In certain parts of the country, the World Cup has brought melancholy, nostalgia, debate about national identity, amazing cheesecake and old rituals back. #AutogolChron

Original Art by ModoGráfico

In case you don’t know, most Venezuelan cities have several immigrant clubs, like Casa Portuguesa, with everything you might expect: a swimming pool, a soccer field, a large hall with art from the old country and a pretty decent restaurant, open to the public, with a giant TV that has become a sanctuary to their national team during the World Cup.

It was hard to imagine what to expect when I went for lunch and to watch the Portugal vs. Iran game. I pictured it as a half-empty, poorly lit restaurant in the middle of a slow, unassuming agony which is pretty much the vibe in most restaurants in Venezuela today.

The first sign I get of being wrong is a man selling Portuguese flags to put on car windows at the club’s entrance, which resembles a castle. These sellers are ubiquitous —the flags too— and now that I see one for the first time in the season, I realize their absence. In the parking lot, mostly filled with large SUVs, I see he had at least one customer today.

It was hard to imagine what to expect when I went for lunch and to watch the Portugal vs. Iran game.

We present our IDs at the entrance and go to the restaurant, which is the only place in the club filled with life. Half a dozen old-school waiters buzz around changing tablecloths and pointing customers to the buffet. Even though not all tables are occupied, you can tell they’re unused to this crowd.

On the walls there are posters of Lisbon, Coimbra, Madeira and the Azores and a large window looks out to the empty swimming pool, touched by a light, warm rain. Most eyes are set on four TV sets —three smaller ones scattered around and a large one in a corner, dominating the room.

The large one and the one at the bar are dedicated to Ronaldo et al against Iran, while the other two are for Spain-Morocco. We strategically sit where we can watch both games.

I have a Parmesan lebranche with fries and vegetables, and a cold glass of papaya juice. It’s the second time I eat in a restaurant since my birthday last January, so I might as well enjoy it (still on the more affordable side of the menu).

The game is uneventful. There are some close calls but every now and then I find my head turning to Spain vs. Morocco. I’m not really a soccer fan —if anything, I’m the most casual baseball fan you’ll ever meet— but I’ve found myself taking an interest in the game thanks to the influence of my Caracas Chronicles coworkers.

What I do notice is hard to explain; it’s not exactly decadence, but like a sense of precariousness and melancholy, there’s something missing but you can’t pinpoint exactly what, though you can make an educated guess.

These are games that used to attract massive audiences from Maracay and across the region, events that unified children and grandchildren of a nation that came here running away from hunger, poverty and an authoritarian government under a common identity embraced by peace, solidarity and prosperity.

There’s something missing but you can’t pinpoint exactly what, though you can make an educated guess.

Now, that’s something of a relic. It’s a ritual people follow not only to distract themselves from the harsh reality, but also to get lost in a connection with something bigger than themselves. It’s a post-modern spiritual experience, probably the last true nationalism, devoid of everything that made it a tradition here.

I finish my lebranche, which was uneven, and have cheesecake for dessert (the best I’ve ever had). People are bored with the game, talking with each other, checking their phones, ordering beers. I look for our waiter, Quaresma scores and everyone turns around.

The group of middle-aged fans wearing Portugal jerseys stand up and hug each other, cheering as if they won the cup (or even the game). For a moment, everything’s good in this world. The spell is eventually broken, some leave and the game ends in a tie.

Venezuela is traditionally a baseball nation. Names like Luis Aparicio, David Concepción and Andrés Galarraga are the stuff of legend and the team you follow, its rivalries and superstitions, were, for a long time, part of what defined you as an everyday, arepa-eating Venezuelan.

Until the 2000s, soccer was somewhat niche. Outside the World Cup, it was mainly territory of Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian immigrants —and some South Americans— who founded and supported amateur teams, fiercely promoting the Beautiful Game they loved so much.

If it weren’t for yesterday’s Portuguese baker, the Italian bricklayer, and the Spanish bookseller, we probably wouldn’t have a Vinotinto today, or a World Cup tradition that isn’t what it used to anymore… for now.

José González Vargas

Freelance journalist, speculative fiction writer, college professor, political junkie, lover of books and movies and, semi-professional dilettante. José has written for NPR's Latino USA, Americas Quarterly, Into and ViceVersa Magazine.