90 Minutes in Belize

A football dispatch from Central America
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Bright lights, not-big city

The word “stadium” covers all sorts of structures. Wembley, Yankee, Giants, the many Olympics, and Ricalde.

Ricalde Stadium is in Corozal Town, Belize, the first settlement of any notable size south of that country's northern border with Mexico. Ricalde is not the sort of place I would normally term a “stadium.”

I had heard a radio advertisement for last Saturday evening's game at Ricalde Stadium. $3 local currency ($1.50 U.S.) to get in. Bueno.

I sauntered over five minutes before the 6 p.m. kickoff. Walking along a minimally-lit dirt road, I passed a lazy creek, and dogs barked as I crossed their territories. I left the dirt road for a paved smaller road leading alongside a cemetery. All the graves were cement and above ground. Some floodlights a couple of hundred feet away silhouetted three children not too far ahead of me, and I could just about see a piece of string strung across the road.

When I got to the string, the oldest child asked, “Fútbol?”



I handed her a ten-dollar note, and, as the oldest child, that is to say, she was In Charge, she hurried her colleagues along with giving me the change. We thanked each other, they lowered the string, and giggled as the pink gringo walked towards the stadium.

The stadium is a soccer field, surrounded by a chain link fence. Eight single floodlights spaced evenly around the fence illuminate parts of the field. A few feet outside of the fence along both long sides of the field were cement bleachers, six rows high.

Six o'clock came, and on the field were a handful of players from the local team, kicking a ball around. The game, it would seem, was not gonna start on time. This is Belizean soccer. A match in the Football Federation of Belize's Inter-District 2013–14 tournament.

Just before half-past-six, both teams, and three referees in fluorescent yellow jerseys, made their way to the centre circle. They lined up, and the home team walked along the line shaking the hands of the refs and visiting team.

I didn't know the names of either team. I asked someone, but he mumbled something. Too embarrassed to admit I didn't understand, I simply thanked him and hoped to find out later. The next day's newspaper would give me the names, but listed the previous day's games as fixtures, not results.

The home team, Ranchito, wore white jerseys with a single green stripe down one side, and green shorts and socks. No badges or sponsor. The visitors were Progresso FC, and they wore Barcelona kits. Not kits that look like Barcelona kits: actual replica Barça kits. Qatar Foundation logo on the front, Unicef logo on the back.

The crowd consisted of about 100,000 mosquitoes and 50 humans. Most of the humans were Spanish speakers. English is the most-widely spoken language in Belize, but in the north, you hear a fair bit of Spanish, too.

I'd forgotten to put on bug spray. Thankfully, I was wearing long trousers, but I had short sleeves and flip flops on. The skinny guy sat a couple of yards away noticed me occasionally slapping bugs off my arms. He smiled, chuckled, and said, “Lotta bugs. Dem spread malaria, too.” Joy.

A keeper

The stadium had no team store. It had no concessions. And at half time, it became apparent that it had no clubhouses either. The teams walked towards the benches, and sat down on the grass around the touchline.

Anyone who wanted to drink or eat either brought their own, or got on their bicycles and nipped out to the local Chinese supermarket. A guy near me in a wifebeater and a Cincinnati Reds cap was drinking Modelo Especial, a Mexican beer that you cannot ordinarily buy in Belize.

Kids ran around the stands and played with toy cars, vrooming them along the cement rows. Other kids cycled in front of the bleachers. Adults paid attention to the game, mostly expressed through yelling and groaning. A man in a pink polo shirt with greased-back hair stood and kept repeating to anyone that would listen, “They can't play! They can't play!”

And he was right. It had been a poor first half. The midfields were non-existent. Defenders cleared the ball, and attacking players ran towards the goal until a defender got near them and would then hoof the ball in the general direction of the goal, either woeful wide or into the arms of the barely-moving goalkeeper. It was very much like the first time you play a soccer video game and don't know how to use the controls.

After the half-time team talk, Ranchito came out and continued to play poorly, but within five minutes Progresso FC scored. I would describe the goal here, but it was at the other end of the field, and the stadium lights were such that it created a mush of darkish colours up there. I wouldn't have known there had been a goal had the Progresso players not celebrated.

A ball kicked out of play flew over the bleachers, hit a truck, and set off its alarm. A replacement ball was found, this time yellow, not white. As a spectator, I took my thrills where I could get them.

With fifteen minutes remaining, the local side had a borderline penalty appeal turned down. Two fellas near me who had spent the whole night talking in Spanish, stood up and shouted at the ref: “MOTHERFUCKER!”

The Progresso keeper argued with Ranchito players who had thought it was a penalty. And on the next attacking move the locals made, one of them came close to the keeper. The goalie flopped. One of the most comedic flops I've ever seen. Arjen Robben would've been proud of the ridiculousness of waiting a moment, then crumpling to the ground, staying down long enough for a physio to come out, having a defender taking the resulting goal kick, and then moving around like nothing had happened. For all his theatricals, a man in the crowd called him a “batty man.”

Ten minutes before the end, Progresso made it 2–0. Being savaged by mosquitoes, I got up to leave. The thin guy next to me, asked “Had enough?” I told him I had. I watched the dregs of the game from behind the goal nearest the cemetery.

At 7 a.m. that same morning I'd watched the Merseyside Derby on telly. Luis Suarez had scored a sublime free kick. It was beautiful. And a highly entertaining game. This was the same sport. But those two games were so far apart. But then, one pretty decent ticket for the Liverpool-Everton game would've cost more or less the same as the entire gate for the game at Ricalde Stadium.

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paved smaller road leading alongside a cemetery. All the graves were cement and above ground. Some floodlights a couple of hundred feet away silhouetted three children not too far ahead of me, and I could just about see a piece of string strung across the road.
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