Sunday, September 27, 2009

Before, during, and after the matches

On Friday night, I went to the U20 World Cup. This was my third WC, actually. On June 25, 1994, I went with my dad and sister when the US hosted. I was living in NYC and we went to see Saudi Arabia beat Morocco, 2-1. It was sold out at the Meadowlands which holds close to 80,000 people. Great match. Super excited fans. Our seats were in the last row behind one of the goals and, as my sister just reminded me, my dad pointed out that they were good seats because we could see the whole field.

Then in 1999, we went to the opening ceremonies of the Women’s World Cup, which featured boy band 98 Degrees. (No I am not making this up.) Also sold out. Supposedly it was the largest US crowd ever for a women’s sporting event. It was Juneteenth 1999, and matches were the US-Denmark and Brazil-Mexico. Brazil beat Mexico 7-1, and the US shutout Denmark 3-0 on goals by Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and Kristine Lilly. In case you were wondering, my memory is not that great, but I am grateful to Wikipedia for the assistance. It needs to redeem itself after the problems it caused last night (read on).

I described the process of getting the tickets in an earlier blog post. At the point of purchase, I asked the location of “Al-Salam Stadium,” and after some discussion got a few inconsistent responses that did not inspire much confidence. When at home, I did endless searches online and found very little except a Wikipedia link from Al Salam Stadium to the Egyptian Military Academy Stadium, which is located in Nasr City, near Heliopolis and the airport, where there are several stadiums. (The same information came across a list-serve too.) OK. I even wrote down the name of the place in Arabic. When I called the taxi company and told them where we were going, they called me back two minutes later to double check on the location. Not a lot of confidence, but I thought we would figure it out. So we went to the Egyptian Military Academy Stadium. We drove completely around the entire perimeter (which was several miles long) and it seemed pretty clear that, although there was a stadium, there were no matches taking place. I mean, this is a major international sporting event. It should be obvious. But, alas, it was not. We stopped at this one spot and it took about 15 minutes, but a solider helped us figure it out where we were headed—still about 30 minutes away. As we were leaving, the soldier asked me my name and told me that he is from Aswan and his family has a felucca... I politely took down his name and telephone number. Our cab driver started laughing and spoke his first English words of the night: “Always business.”

The road ahead was not much more clear. We stopped to ask directions several times. We saw the stadium lights in the distance, but were on the wrong side of the split highway and had to drive miles before being able to turn around. Once we did, we passed the road to the stadium because there were no lights and had to back up along the shoulder of the highway (which was kind of dangerous because the road did not really have a shoulder). We were still really far away and eventually made it to what seemed like the main gate of the stadium. We asked some folks who were there and they said we were in the right place. We got out, paid the cab driver, and were on our way. A couple of my friends who were with me spoke some Arabic and arranged for the driver to come back to get us. We had no idea what transportation would be like after the match so this seemed like a good idea. He asked us to pay half of the return fare up front, which was a bit strange, but we talked about it briefly, got the driver’s phone number, and gave him 20LE additional toward our return. Or so we thought (more on this later).

Feeling the adventure was over, we went to enter the stadium. We showed the guards our tickets and they told us we needed to enter by a different gate that was at least a mile away. (Our tickets were 2nd class.) At each point during the evening, I kept thinking, it can’t get stranger, but each time was proven wrong. Finally we arrived and there were a lot of guards telling us conflicting things—that we were at the wrong gate, that the gate was closed, that they were not letting more people in. This was bizarre. And chaotic. (And I would write about the dead dog that was lying flattened on the driveway where we were standing, but that would make the story too weird.) Eventually we made the smart decision to listen to those people who were telling us what we wanted to hear (that we could go in), ignored everyone else, and made our way upon a phalanx of riot police with helmets and shields. They told us we could not enter. We pointed at the ranking guy in a white uniform who just told us we could enter and they let us through. My friend made a joke about how mad he would be at me if I, who “organized” this outing, got him beat up by riot cops for no good political cause. There were lots more guards but we showed our tickets and entered the stadium as the first half was ending. It took us about an hour and a half to get to the stadium (and the driver was 30 minutes late to start), so we were late.
There were of course no seat assignments, or any signs whatsoever. The way we entered and exited looked no different than a service entrance. There were people sort-of-pointing us in the right direction, but it is not clear to me if that was their job or they were just being helpful. Once inside, the area we were seated in was relatively full, although the stands behind the goals were nearly empty. We were seated next to a section filled with soldiers, who are given free seats to help fill up the stadium, which is on the grounds of a military complex (which may partly explain the confusion about the stadium). The soldiers were not especially disciplined, but they were well-dressed in their civilian outfits which are bright-colored nylon track suits. Including hot pink. I spent much of the evening imagining US soldiers in such gear... By the way, once we were inside, we realized the stadium was not the same one pictured on Wikipedia.

The stadium was, despite its chaos, quite nice in some respects. We were seated in front of an enormous television screen and there were nice, new displays behind each goal. This was really state-of-the-art stuff that is probably as nice as things get this side of Jerry Jones’s ego. But the stadium does not have toilets or signs directing patrons or a proper concession area (though there are guys wandering around with bags of koushari).
As for the football, we just missed some excitement. A few minutes earlier a Nigerian player got a red card and Venezuela scored the match’s only goal at the 45-minute mark. The first match ended 1-0 for Venezuela which was a pretty big upset since Nigeria won the last U17 World Cup a few years back (though it is not exactly the same team) and was a tournament favorite. Since I missed the first half, I am embarrassed to admit that while watching the second half I did not realize that Nigeria was down a player until the match was over. Nigeria still controlled the ball and had a few solid opportunities to score. The Venezuelan fanatics were definitely the best--they had flags, signs, and most importantly trumpets!Tahiti, not surprisingly, got smoked by Spain, 8-0. It looks good for Venezuela to advance now, since they can presumably beat Tahiti. Nigeria needs a strong showing against Spain (and should probably run up the score on Tahiti) since not all 3rd place teams advance. Tahiti presented their opponents with floral leis, and had some other cool-looking pre-match rituals.

Before the matches ended, we called our taxi driver who told us he was on the way to come get us. We went outside and waited for him. We called again. He said he was “five minutes” away, which of course meant closer to 30 minutes. My friend had fun explaining to his 6-year-old son that “5 minutes” is a figure of speech, like “in a second” does not literally mean 1 second. The driver showed. He dropped three of us off first and then went to the final stop. The evening adventure was over. Or so I thought. About 15 minutes later, my friend calls and tells me he is still with the driver who is insisting that the fare is 1 ½ times the meter for both going and returning since we were so far out. He is refusing to accept the fare that we offered—the meter rates plus a nice tip. Since I was the person who arranged the taxi, he asked if I knew anything about this. I told him no and that it sounded fishy. He was trying to call the cab company, and a friend to help with some translation. I also tried the cab company (it was probably about 1:30am) and got a dispatcher on the phone who apologized, and told me that this was b.s. and that we should not pay and that the driver would have to meet with his supervisor and be reassigned the following day. Next, I tried to call back my friend whose line was busy. I made the mistake of calling his wife who I woke up, because I was anxious to get him the message. After some extensive debate, my friend left the driver in the lobby of his building and there, apparently, the adventure finally ended.

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