Living in Casco Antiguo, I am privy to a lot of things people in the “modern quarter” are not. Things like beer parties at noon on Tuesday, frenzied domino matches that last long into the night, and soccer games that long withstand their ghetto veneer.
I had heard about the championship for the Casco Viejo soccer league for a few days and decided to make a cameo as the only gringo in the joint: an act I have become quite fond of in Panama. The field sat on the tan seashore of the Old Quarter, overlooking the palm tree-studded Causeway and sparkling Bridge of the Americas. The experience was a riot, both literally and figuratively.
It was far more organized (at the beginning) than I anticipated. Two referees, matching uniforms, and even official little ball boys who raced after errant shots as if they were hunting down pieces of soccer gold. Everyone on the beach was drinking beer and eating smoked sausages: big coolers and makeshift grills almost everywhere you looked.
The vibe of the stadium though, if you wanna call it that, was overwhelming at first. Take your equivalent of a community from the hood, throw them on a beach, and tell them that their life depends on whether or not they can put a ball in a net. Girls dressed in ghettowear to the nines; things like hot pink spandex and bling bling hanging from their clearly exposed breasts. Guys stood all tough, with their shirts off revealing chiseled forearms that could probably knock me out devoid of even physical contact.
Once the games were underway and the Casconians got over the fact that a gringo could speak Spanish, things settled down. I spoke with one man, his skin rough and suntanned like a wallet I used to own. When I asked who was playing he told me France. OK, I figured, now we’re talking. I love the French national team. When asked the name of the other team, the same old man shrugged and said Green. There were no television cameras or radio announcers: hell, the guard keeping fans off the field was no older than nine, his finger lodged indeterminately in his right ear.
The game itself was fast and heated: much more physical force than finesse. The actual safety of the players became compromised when people started throwing sand-logged beer cans onto the pitch. But for the most part, it was a fair and even match.
At one point, a shot was taken far off target and the ball sailed over the goal. For the lucky of us fans who followed where the ball ended up, you could see this poor little girl meandering along-probably picking up sea shells or something. The ball came flying in like a heat-seeker and stunned the girl in the head-her simple body toppling over like a child bowling pin.
The game ended 5-5 which meant penalties. The entire crowd, at this point fully intoxicated with local beer and drained by the Pacific sun, gathered around the goal area forming a street fight-like atmosphere. France on one side, Green on the other. Each shot ended with sprayed beer and flying sand hurled in the air by supporters. It wasn’t the safest spot for me to be, at one point witnessing a small riot between several kids of the combined age fifteen, but it was just so hilarious. At one point I went to high five a friend, and his slap was so enthusiastic it left a dent on my palm.
One of the teams won, I’m not even sure which. And there were celebrations that lasted long into the evening. But at that point, everyone was drunk-so no one cared. By the last penalty shot, people were running everywhere, screaming, laughing, and interfering with the refs. By the time the sun was starting to set and everyone, including women and children, danced around the beach under the watchful eye of neighborhood police who had been brought in to keep stray dogs off the field. It was a true Casco moment, not anything like I’ve experienced in the cathedral or at the table of Don Manolo Caracol. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, but the sunlight was really strong, I’ve gotta remember to bring my visor.