Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Fútbol and Death

With little suffering, my paternal grandfather passed away early the morning of the seventh of March. He was ninety-three years old and had a long and rewarding time here on earth. Having spent most of my life outside of Ecuador, I cannot say I was close to the man. He had a disciplinarian streak and was often grumpy. Fussy does not even come close to describing his attitude towards food, a shrimp omelet and white rice his idea—at least in my mind—of a perfect meal. Yet, he was also tender and encouraging, lovingly cupping my cheeks with his frail hand or driving my brothers and me to pick up our favorite pizzas for dinner. One of my fondest childhood memories is of him sitting by my bedside, patting my legs and whispering a lengthy prayer while I tried to sleep and not think about the scary volcanoes looming at a distance or the jets’ rumbling as they made their final approach into Quito’s tricky airport.

As children, my mother and father made sure we traveled to Ecuador once a year to see our grandparents, but as my brothers and I grew older, our own commitment to our studies, professions and families made it harder to visit regularly. I last saw him and my grandmother in 2008 during Christmas. My Cypriot wife and I flew in from Nicosia—our home for now—and spent ten days exchanging stories, laughing and cherishing each other’s unfortunately short company, all the while my better-half courageously using her rudimentary Spanish.

When my mother called that morning about his death, I hardly blinked. My upbringing as somewhat of a nomad who is used to city-hopping and promptly readjusting to change in life certainly helped. I am thirty-four and the longest I’ve been in one place is eight years and that long stint in Bogotá ended nearly a quarter of a century ago. So often I’ve had to say goodbye to new-found friends and family—sometimes temporarily, other times forever—that detaching from all kinds of relationships has come too easily for me. I’m not sure whether there is any value in this personality trait. Perhaps it’s a cover I use to avoid dealing with grief or it simply reveals my true colors as a selfish insensitive human being. Fact is, however, all the moving around has allowed me to handle loss in all of its multifaceted forms.

Little did I know that a strange kind of mourning would creep up on me later that day in the company of nearly twenty three thousand people at GSP Stadium in Nicosia. It was the return leg of the round of sixteen Champions League match-up between APOEL Nicosia, arguably Cyprus’ best team, and Olympique Lyonnais, a French behemoth, and I had a ticket to the east stand.

Minutes before kick-off, the fogged-up sky threatened the crowd with rain. I remember looking up at the GSP stadium’s bright lights. The lampposts drowned in the thin clouds and a ghostly, some would say premonitory, white sheet blanketed the night. The bleachers, however, were electric. On the south end, the hardcore fans, most of them clad in vivid orange or yellow, jumped and sang about how their squad took on Porto, Zenit and Shakhtar. A hooded man, emulating Spider-Man or a typical Argentine football fanatic, clawed his way up the tall fence separating the pitch from the supporters and held up a Greek flag.  A handful of irresponsible fans lit four or five flares, leaving behind a trail of thick smoke and a likely hefty fine for the club from UEFA. Throughout the stadium, cameras and iPhones flashed to capture this historic moment for Cypriot football. Around me, men, women and children were on their toes, giddy in anticipation for the match and hoping their team could revert the 1-0 loss in France.

APOEL’s Serbian coach Ivan Jovanović, who plied his trade as footballer and coach in Greece, moved away from his preferred 4-5-1 counterattacking formation and utilized an aggressive 4-4-2 lineup with Ailton Almeida and Esteban Solari as out-and-out forwards. Wingers Constantinos Charalambides and Gustavo Manduca were set up to feed balls into the area, while Nuno Morais and Helder Sousa were parked in the middle of the pitch to destroy and distribute. Within nine minutes, the coach’s strategic acumen paid off as Charalambides captured a poorly-cleared ball, split a couple of defenders and slid the ball across the box for Manduca to tap into the back of the net. 1-0 APOEL.

Throughout the first half and most of the second, APOEL created a few solid chances with good link-up play between their four attackers. Despite their advantage in possession, most of Lyon’s attacks focused on swinging balls into the area and these were dealt with adroitly by Portugal’s Paulo Jorge and the rest of APOEL’s staunch defense. As players tired and substitutions were made, APOEL switched back to the familiar 4-5-1 line-up and lost some of its incisiveness. In extra-time,  an isolated Ailton, who for some bizarre reason refused to shoot with his left foot, tried to single-handedly take on three French defenders, time and again cutting right and being dispossessed of the ball. After an exhausting two-hour stalemate, Nicosia would bear witness to the most important penalty shootout in Cyprus’ history.

I thought things looked bleak with Manduca, Charalambides and Solari, three of APOEL’s usual penalty takers, watching from the sideline. After Ailton and Morais scored APOEL’s first two strikes and Bafétimbi Gomis beat APOEL’s goalie Dionisis Chiotis to give Lyon a 3-2 lead, Cypriot winger Nektarios Alexandrou, who had entered the match as a substitute in extra-time and performed quite like a perch out of water, walked confidently towards the spot. Many around me worried the stage would prove too immense for a local player who worked his way up APOEL’s youth ranks and into the first team. Alexandrou, though, as fresh as a watermelon in August, rifled a left-footed strike straight down the gut of Hugo Lloris’ goal and once again evened out the tie.

What followed was hypnotic. Alexandre Lacazette, Lyon’s future star, struck low and to his right but Chiotis timed his lunge perfectly and denied the French squad the lead with a breathtaking save. Macedonian international Ivan Tričkovski scored easily for APOEL and put the Cypriot team up for the first time in the shootout. Then, Chiotis, inspired by the crazed cries of thousands, flung his body left and blocked Michelle Bastos’ poorly-taken penalty. The stadium erupted and the yellow-clad players rushed the field, piling onto the match’s hero.

Later, I would find out that APOEL’s goalkeeping coach had studied each of Lyon’s past penalty-takers and told Chiotis exactly where to dive. Right then and there, though, I hoped my grandfather had had a deft hand in that night’s victory, gifting a bright moment in European football history from beyond his deathbed to his oldest grandson. I don’t recall him ever playing football or even being an avid spectator of the sport, but I will live with the belief that on that particular night he was. The skies now clear, I looked up at the lights and my eyes welled up for a few seconds with the fleeting thought of my grandfather saying goodbye touching my heart. I laughed and clapped and prayed “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named,” who that same day had put five past a haplessly awestruck Bernd Leno in Catalunya, wouldn’t be next.

Keep in mind that I have some serious issues with APOEL. Too many Greek flags and no Cypriot ones fly in their matches. A small and misguided faction of the fan base has embraced ultra-right-wing ideologies and anti-Semitic emblems as their own. Despite all of this, APOEL’s ballsy yet disciplined performance is a victory for an island that has been rocked by a turbulent and violent history and recent economic hardship. Many among APOEL’s local rivals might not feel pride in this team’s achievements, but it’s impossible for me to see what has been accomplished in any other light. I don’t support football teams. I follow the sport itself—as a beautiful brushstroke, as a battlefield where many times will defeats skill, as a cauldron of mixed emotions. I might have rarely experienced the ninety-minute roller-coaster of a ride reserved for the typical football fan, but I have learned to love and stand behind the place—wherever and whenever that may be—I call home.

On the drive back from the stadium, my wife, who’s not a football fan, woke up at around twelve-thirty a.m. startled by the celebratory commotion out on the streets. We live a few blocks from APOEL fan’s headquarters and the honking, football chants and loud hoorays had taken over the night. She sent me a text message wondering whether APOEL had somehow miraculously gone through to the next round. Knowing all too well he probably had nothing to do with the victory, I selfishly replied “Yep. Penalties. A gift from my grandfather to Cyprus.” I guess we all grieve in our own little ways.


Anonymous said...

Respect Mateo. This article is amazing !!!


Mateo Jarrin Cuvi said...

@Chris: Thanks for your kind words. I try, I try.

@Manuela: Mil gracias por tu mensaje, sin duda alguna todo lo que dices es cierto. Toca acostumbrarnos a esta vida lejos de nuestras familias y hacer todo lo posible por siempre tenerlas en mente y como parte de nuestra cotidianidad. Anda al estadio, ya sabes que para muchos es mas que una iglesia. ;-) Cuidate y te mando un beso.

Anonymous said...


Goretz_Siberia_APOEL said...

Meteo thankl you that was amazing:)Thank you and really sorru for your grandfather

Anonymous said...

Very well written! Bravo!

The only thing i would disagree on is your view on this:

"Too many Greek flags and no Cypriot ones fly in their matches. A small and misguided faction of the fan base has embraced ultra-right-wing ideologies and anti-Semitic emblems as their own."

We are very proud of the Greek flag, you can never say there are too many. We fought wars under the Greek flag. Our ancestors as well. The idea that APOEL was founded on is exactly this. The five letters that consist our name. I urge you to learn more about APOEL's history from 1926 onwards, on all parts of society. No cypriot flag was ever involved. It has no place next to APOEL and its idea.
To sum up, we are not a small and misguided faction. I can bet you that 99% of all our fan agree on that point.
Anything else would we an insult to our history and the legacy that everyone involved with APOEL left from 1926!

My deepest condolences on your loss,

Anonymous said...

Amazing, just amazing

gooneraki said...

Yes is true that APOEL was founded in a time where Greek Cypriots were fighting alone for their independence.

But really do you think that other teams don't have history? A "reason" they were founded?

The point is that in 2012 we have to start thinking differently and not exactly the same way we were 86 years ago. We should take politics and ideologies out of football!

And why every time somebody says his opinion about this right wing issue of APOEL you always have to reply and defend yourselves.

Chill out man!

From another APOEL fan,who has a season ticket the last seven years and been to seven away European games

Mateo Jarrin Cuvi said...

Thank you all for your comments. I am much obliged. Good luck tonight. Cyprus deserves this.

Anonymous said...


"But really do you think that other teams don't have history? A "reason" they were founded?"

I didn't understand your point here..

Politics i could agree..but ideologies? You should not support APOEL if you have problem with that. Never sing our anthem. We live and breathe because of these ideologies. You speak Greek, celebrated the Euro in 2004, have the Greek National Anthem etc. You should be proud and show the world that this is what we fought for, this is our heritage. And after all these obstacles we are still here, strong, a team that can beat anyone regardless the size of the opponent! This is the GREEK spirit that carries us on! Our players have caught this spirit. You should as well.

We have nothing to defend. You are the one that tried and failed. I absolutely despise people that think that showing the Greek flag is right wing. It is a matter of fact that you cannot overcome.

I was chilled all along, don't worry about me. Go watch this video my pal Anastas made and stay frosty:

Mateo has written a brilliant piece here and all the praise should go to him.

From an Ultras that has followed APOEL everywhere, Cyprus and abroad.

Anonymous said...

Best of luck to APOEL!


akalyptos said...

Excellent piece mateo...I am an omonoia fun but i recognize what they have achieved so far and say hats off to those players and coach.
As about the political comment I would agree with apoel fun gooneraki. Chill out and enjoy this for what it is. Football.
One more thing...I cant help it anonymous :)) ...what Greek spirit? mandouka, ailton, triskofksi, boaventura, morais, jorje, oliveira...ehhehehehhe...

Anonymous said...

omonoia !!fun!! you are right. Like all clients are. Check that your sofa is in its place for tonight as always!

A xomonoia fan that does whatever akel says so tells us what to do!! LOL! That is why we will always prevail. You do not exist. You have no values. No moral. You are nothing.

You know our players better that you know your own as i can see.. 23000 with Greek spirit and passion will push our team until the end like they did again and again! but how will you know xoxo fun??..heheh..


Mateo Jarrin Cuvi said...

One clarification:

When I wrote "a small and misguided faction of the fan base," I was *not* referring to those fans who show their allegiance to Greece by flying Greek flags.

As a liberal immigrant living in Cyprus, I was strictly referring to those fans who have embraced racist/anti-Semite ideologies as their own. I am 100% sure that this is a rather *small* number of Apoel's fans, not 99% of them.

My issue with the Greek flags is quite simple. I support this team and any other Cypriot team playing in Europe because my home--one that I have come to love--is Cyprus, not Greece. Nevertheless, I understand the team's history and the links between Apoel and Greece.

And, yes, football would benefit the most if it were devoid of politics.

Good luck tonight!

AnnaK said...

excellent post, mat...very well done!!

Anonymous said...

Querido Mateo:
Aunque puse un mensaje hace algunos días, al parecer el mismo no llegó a ser publicado (por cuanto lo hice desde mi nuevo "juguete" : una tablet Samsung, es posible que no la haya operado correctamente y por eso no llegó a publoicarse el mensaje.
Ahora que volví a chequear su blog, me encuentro con que no está ahí.
En todo caso, trataré de resumir lo que puse ese momento.
Haciendo referencia al mensaje de la Manuelita, le felicitaba por su excelente manejo del inglés y le decía que era tal vez la segunda persona a quien le produjeron lágrimas la lectura de su lindo artículo. Felicitaciones y siga haciendo lo que le gusta.
Un abrazo desde Quito para usted, Irini y toda su flia. política.
El domingo estaremos reunidos en una misa, celebrando el primer mes de la muerte del abuelo.

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