If you’ve ever played football at any level then you’ll probably be aware of the importance of ‘banter’ with your teammates. It adds to the enjoyment. It’s part of the experience. Hammering each other about being shit at football, about misplaced passes and wild shots on goal that are more likely to see the ball flying into a tree than bursting the net. Whether it’s sat in a freezing changing room before a Sunday league game or waiting outside a five-a-side pitch on a Thursday evening it’s taking the piss out of each other that helps to build spirit amongst the players. One insult, whether in jest or not, that you’re generally unlikely to hear in a football changing room is that “you’re so gay…you even want to shag men in cartoon strips.”
This isn’t the start of a journey of a tale of homophobia, but a line from one transvestite player to another. Alberto Salcedo Ramos writes of Las Regias (The Queens), a team made up of transvestite players from Cali, and their aim, through the game, to raise money for people in the gay community in the southern Colombian city. While football provides the narrative of the tale it is the deeper issues of “Colombia’s age-old problems of intransigence, whereby anyone different is viewed as a transgressor and must be erased from the face of the earth. This is why we live through conflict after conflict.” If this sounds like heavy subject matter then you wouldn’t be mistaken, but reference to Colombia’s internal conflicts gives context to the struggles that minority groups face.
Tales like this, referred to in Latin America as crónicas, allow for a story to be told as “a mix of journalism and creative fiction” with touches of sentimentality, comedy and socio-political life, yet whilst still able to retain a matter-of-fact element. Indeed, acknowledging that Las Regias “make unlikely footballers” with their “painted nails and false eyelashes” allows the author to speculate on what draws spectators to watch a game involving this team. Perhaps it’s the ‘Latin American thing’, where everything seems to be a bit off-kilter with how the rest of the world seems to work (not true, of course).
In journeying through the 15 tales in Crónicas the reader is led from Bolivian traffic jams to skirted Andean female players, and from Brazilian legend Romário turning to politics to grenade-wielding Argentinean fans. The idea of the stories (12 of which are non-fiction) is to not indoctrinate you into the whys and wherefores of certain countries but to offer a glimpse into tales of South American football that don’t rely solely on the notions of superstar Argentinian and Brazilian footballers or exuberant transfer fees. Here the focus is, on the whole, on what might be termed as the ‘grass roots’ side of the game.
For the casual reader these stories may not be as easily accessible as for those who are familiar with Latin America through travel or special interest. Indeed, can anyone who hasn’t experienced the traffic of El Alto really comprehend what that entails? Or would anyone who has attended games in Argentina deny that the likelihood of barras bravas carrying grenades to a game is something to be dismissed off hand? Yet beyond the eccentricities there is something ‘basic’ and real about the stories, the antithesis of anything that modern European football in particular seems to embrace. Still, there can’t be many books on football that contain a tale of an Argentinian prison football team who play under the watchful eye of cocaine-hunting sniffer dogs, can there?