I had been warned that attendance at the game would be low because it was a midweek game and most fans care only for MLS. This was a mixed blessing because a small crowd diminishes the thrill of a game but the smaller tailgater gave me a chance to get to know the Barra Brava hardcore better. Everybody seemed really pleased to see me. Supporting a "non sellout team" like Ipswich was a particular strength. It was clear that being a fan of Chelsea or Manchester United would have been particularly suspect.
We had brought nothing with us but we were embraced by the group. Beer, rum, whisky, sodas, and margueritas (virgin and heavy) were proffered. Likewise, there were spicy burgers, hotdogs, crudites, and buffalo wings. This was a generous group and they were keen to share their food, their drinks, and their stories. I learned how the Bravas were started about twelve years ago by a couple of Bolivian guys. Oscar Zambrana and his group of 'Elders' organise the tailgates, parties, and away trips as well as coordinating the drumming, chanting and flag-waving during the games. Oscar was managing ticket sales from the back of his truck but he still had time to chat. He is proud that the Barras now attract 'all sorts' and just looking around it was clear that age, gender, or race played no part in determining membership.
The only other Brit at the tailgate was a Fulham fan from Thamesmead over here to visit family. We left it to a more knowledgeable local to explain the various meanings of 'cottager' to a curious American woman. "George Michael?" she asked brightly before dissolving into giggles when a less clued-in guy said "I like his music". Fortunately, nobody else seemed to hear the arcane observation that "at least the Cottagers rarely meet the Irons" and no further explanations were needed.
From talking to a fellow Brit, I moved on to mingle with other clusters. Everyone was keen to talk about English soccer, their own visits to the UK, and my opinion of MLS. And everyone was charming. The behaviour of Latino barras worldwide is usually reported as akin to hooliganism but none of that was apparent in the parking lot. There was a lot of drinking going on but noone was being extreme. "We try to contain the excesses", explained Bob, a white-bearded professor of Economics. "Go too far and we ease you out. And we keep an eye on underage drinking too". "We don't want trouble. This is for lots of guys to have fun together" explained a teenaged African American from under his reversed red baseball cap.
With half an hour to go before kick-off, we walked up to the stadium so that Deb could secure a place at the front in the free seating that operates in the Barras block. Immediately to our right were the Screaming Eagles blocks. They are another fan group. "We started out as Latino. They were white middle-class soccer moms." I was told. "They have their tailgates catered" was another disdainful description. There was no real hostility behind this tribal disparagement, however.
Before us on the field the Elders laid out the flags and about eight bags of streamers ready for a huge tifo. Out came the drums and the three regular cops that police this section chatted with fans whom they obviously knew well. There was a party atmosphere but it was muted by the recognition that the crowd would be mostly Costa Rican and that with so few DC fans things would not have the usual energy. "Where should we have the small flags?" "Just in the front four rows" came the cheerful reply from a guy in the fourth row with noone behind him.
The team had been riddled with injuries. Most of the starting line-up was second stringers but the fans were keen to see the performance of new South African signing Boyzzz Khumalo and there was a sense that this game was not as important as others. We were going to have fun.
The flags waved, the drums beat, and the players took the field to the endless repeated chant of "DC United DC United ..." Play started cleanly with no fouls in the first ten minutes and a wide shot by Saprissa from inside the box when the DC keeper closed on the striker. Saprissa looked the better side; they were crisper, more accurate in their passing, and more cohesive than the home side. There were plenty of off-target shots from both sides but the Costa Ricans were also giving the DC keeper occasional challenges. It seemed likely that there would only be one goal in the match and that it would be Central American.
It seemed to me that Saprissa were going to get that goal with the first corner kick of the match but Wells, the DC goalie, made a brilliant leaping save.who dived headlong to his right to parry the effort wide. In the first quarter, this was the best chance of the game although DC would have been in very serious trouble had a free-kick not fallen to an off-side player a little later. And suddenly they were in very deep trouble indeed. Defender McTavish failed to keep control of the ball in the goal area. The Costa Ricans seized this chance; the ball was passed across to Centeno who gave Wells no chance by slotting it low just inside the post.
Three minutes later McTavish's nightmare was complete. Right in front of us one of his teammates was booked for a rough foul. Amid the arguing players and in full view of us and the nearby referee, McTavish lost his temper and bodycharged the fouled player. Few men could stand against such a blow and as his victim fell to the ground McTavish saw red. He left the field, a dejected man. His team took the setback badly. For the remaining ten minutes they were disordered and unable to dispossess their energised visitors.
At half-time the fans around me were annoyed and dispirited by what they had seen. Several people apologised to me for the quality of the play. They were right. I had been surprised to see a player dismissed from a game in which the local team seemed to care little about the outcome. The keeper and the new forward were working hard but much of the rest seemed misdirected.
Much more surprise, however, had arisen from the behaviour of these fans. Clearly the local rules are very different. In the UK we can no longer smoke in most grounds and no alcohol is allowed within sight of the pitch. Here most people were drinking beer and some were smoking. More surprisingly, beer and skiffs were hurled towards the pitch without anybody being ejected. The police grinned as fans stood on the seats gesturing obscenely and shouting sentences that rarely omitted 'fuck'. These were the same charming people, with whom I had been chatting at the tailgate. Here they adopted a hooligan persona like a costume. One minute someone would be talking to me about their family; the next they would be flipping the referee the bird and loudly suggesting the biologically impossible.
Sometimes the cod hooliganism was knowingly absurd. When a guy to my right upended his beer over himself because "I have to throw it somewhere" in frustration at the booking. I laughed as loudly as the cop in front of us. Mostly, however, it was simple cathartic misbehaviour and I admired the cops for recognising that it would not escalate.
A serious half-time talk was needed by the local coach but it seemed to have been omitted as United came out with ten men and played as if they were protecting a 1-0 lead and within ten minutes they conceded a second goal to a lovely long shot into the top corner. For the rest of the game the only real interest came from set pieces. The visitors took the DC defence apart with three brilliant passes that unravelled with an an accurate offside shot. Likewise, United's first very shot on goal came from a free kick that was saved with a masterly parry.
With the under-staffed locals out of their depth and the visitors satisfied with a two-goal lead there was little to entertain us. Despite this, the Barras kept chanting and drumming.
Being amidst such a vocal group was exciting but in a strange way it divorced me from the flow of the play. The singing keeps going irrespective of events on the pitch and all the chants are well-established. At Portman Road I hear new chants or circumstantial chants. Here there was none of that. I like the ritual of "Come on you Blues" whenever a corner is taken, and the absurdity of the drawn out "Dodgy keeper" for a goal kick. I want to hear the swelling roar as a midfielder makes a heroic run through the middle. Amidst the glorious flag-waving bellowing of the barras there is no room for the quiet irony of "We're not singing any more" or "We're going to score in a minute".
For all that, I had a great evening. The inevitable post-match review on the way back to the parking lot was good-humoured and informed. Since nothing can be finer than dinner in the diner, we went on to Bob & Edith's in Arlington where the short order cook wanted to know all about the game and particularly sought details of Khumalo's performance.