This excerpt was taken from Jordan Florit‘s new book, Red Wine & Arepas: How Football is Becoming Venezuela’s Religion, available to order here. Part travelogue, part sports book, part love letter to an embattled nation, modern Venezuela is brought to life through events on and off its football pitches.
“Following Deportivo Táchira is a mixture of situations and sensations one must live with day by day: anguish, sadness, anxiety, but above all, happiness in the good and bad times. In San Cristóbal, not a moment passes without the Aurinegro being mentioned. That is what this institution represents.”
Yencer Barona, Deportivo Táchira Fan
A massage chair, a signed and framed Tomás Rincón Juventus shirt, and a water feature were the first things I noticed as I was guided into the office of Deportivo Táchira president Jorge Silva. We were on the top level of a Caracas high-rise block, where two of the four walls were windowed from floor to ceiling, allowing an escape from the metropolis to the mountains on one side and the roads to lead the eyes out and over the capital on the other. We were, however, with the city’s footballing enemy, and in such surroundings, Jorge had not just managed to make himself at home but stand over his rivals too.
Ten days after meeting with him in Caracas and seeing a model Pueblo Nuevo encased in display glass, Kevin and I were finally in the city of San Cristóbal to experience it in brick and mortar. It was a fixture of the trip I was desperate to make and spent a lot of time doubting I would, but after just shy of 1,000 kilometres of toil and travel, we had made it to Táchira. Having spent four days wondering how we would get back to Caracas once we were there, what nearly stumped us was arriving in the first place. On the day of our proposed journey, the local taxi firm was falling short on their promises to provide us a driver. The problem, obviously, was fuel. Although the guy who took us the ten-minute journey across town in the morning wanted the business, he did not have the petrol. He did have a mobile phone full of contacts though, and if he could not take us, he was sure going to try and earn some commis sion by finding someone who could. Jorge Luis Sánchez became that man and fortune had favoured the brave and resourceful.
After months of saving, Jorge Luis had raised enough money to buy a motorbike for $600. It was more economical than his car when it came to fuel, it granted him access to motorbike-only petrol station queues, and it meant he could leave his car in the garage with a full tank for opportunities like this. Whilst all of his fellow drivers begrudgingly turned down the job, Jorge Luis was able to say yes immediately and drive the five hours it would take us to get to Táchira. It was evidently a route he knew well, slowing down and speeding up with seemingly no outward logic, just for me to see the car in front get caught out by a pothole that he knew was coming.
“Mario Kart,” Kevin said, as I tried to hold myself in the seat as the car swung with the camber and curve of the road. “I always say that. Driving in Venezuela is like Mario Kart.” When we came to a break in the tarmac and edged along bare land, I caught sight of a short bridge that had collapsed into the river it was traversing. “That gave out with a bus on it,” Jorge Luis told Kevin. “The driver didn’t see the signs stating that it couldn’t take the weight.” A thousand kilometres from Caracas, having never been this far into Venezuela, Kevin still knew the lay of the land. Pot holes and collapsing bridges. Mario Kart. I could see he was taking pride in knowing his country so well. We stuttered across the still intact bridge 30 metres along the river from its fallen companion and continued on to San Cristóbal. As we entered the outskirts, we had to stop at the same toll booth that would mark the end of Los Demonios Rojos’ journey to the city a month later. “Does he need some money?” I asked Kevin. “No, no, no, it’s fine,” he replied, as Jorge Luis paid the fare. It was four cents.
We arrived at the Hamburgo Hotel on Avenida Libertador at gone 10pm. Considering the journey we had just made, I offered Jorge Luis a room for the night, which he quickly accepted, and then we readied ourselves for a hunt for food. Jorge Luis staying gave us the convenience of a car, so we drove into town to scavenge from any shop, bar, or stall still open. It was Wednesday and an hour from midnight; we were not hopeful. Instead, the first place we passed was open and showing a live baseball game. There was only one other person in there. It was not quite a restaurant or a café and more than just a bar, but the owner was happy to grill a chicken for us. It was greasy and salty and washed down with chips and beer. It was delicious.
I was barely awake when I received the first of a few messages the next morning telling me that a small group of barra members were waiting outside the hotel to pick me up and take me to la sede – the headquarters of Deportivo Táchira. Even the club’s Director of Football, Gerzon Chacón, had informed me that leaders of Avalancha Sur would be collecting me. It was my first exposure to what I would realise over the course of the day to be a very amicable and working relationship between the club and its barra – something far removed from what I had experienced in Caracas.
Founded in December 1997, Avalancha Sur follows on from its predecessor, Comando Sur, in being Deportivo Táchira’s biggest and most organised fan group and lays a claim to being the largest in the country too. “How are you going to meet with a barra that doesn’t exist?” one of their members replied when I asked if there was ever trouble at the Andino Derby with Estudiantes de Mérida. Similar sentiments, with more maliciousness, were reserved for their newer, but seemingly more fierce rivals, Caracas FC, and were made known to me on numerous occasions throughout the day. The fact I had met with Caracas’ Los Demonios Rojos (LDR) did not rile Peru (nicknamed because he had been to the country), Apu (vulgarly but willingly named for his not even faint resemblance to the Simpsons’ character), or Roberto (not even his real name), and they were keen to adopt me as their own.
“Our state is the only one in the country with a football culture,” Peru confidently proclaimed. “The rest of Venezuela prefers baseball, and that passion has been passed down the generations. I think the combination is a strong reason why we in Táchira live with football in us our entire lives.” Impressively fluent in English and well-travelled across the continent, through following the club on their international exploits, Peru was the barra’s mouthpiece for the day and spoke with a strong desire to socially contextualise every claim he was making. “We need to talk about the big differences and dislikes between Táchira and Caracas, because they are from the capital and to them, we are just a province. That snobbery has put a big distance between us as people. With time, the rivalry has increased to become much more than just a simple game.”
To illustrate his point, he regaled me with the story of Venezuela’s El Clásico from December 2000. It was a two-legged tie in the final of the Copa Bolivariana de Venezuela, a one-off tournament in which the winners of two regionally split leagues went head-to-head. In the first leg, Caracas won 2-1 at home, with Táchira’s goal coming in second-half injury time. In San Cristóbal, the hosts looked like completing a memorable comeback and were leading 2-0 on the night with 15 minutes left when Ederlei Pereira drew the game level. It meant the game was headed to penalties. Then, in the 89th minute, Stalin Rivas levelled the second leg and handed Caracas the victory on aggregate.
But Peru told me none of that. To him and to history, the result was not important. As he remembered, Caracas’ striker Alexander Rondón ran to the Táchira barra and grabbed his crotch in celebration of the last-minute equaliser. His gesture sent the crowd into a frenzy. Other versions have the gesticulating coming from Caracas striker Juan García, but what happened next is accepted truth. A number of fans invaded the pitch, Rondón kicked one of them, a fan had his skull fractured with a police baton, and disaster ensued. Before Caracas could depart, the team bus was burned down. “That created a before and after in Venezuelan football,” Peru said. “From then on, the game became the Clásico Moderno because of the publicity it creates and the quality it displays.” In spite of the drama Rondón caused, all was clearly forgiven: three years later, he swapped the red for the black and gold, but not before he had also represented their other rivals, Estudiantes de Mérida. García would cross the divide too, joining Táchira in 2005 via several other clubs.
Trying to grasp exactly what differentiated Venezuela’s barra culture to the casuals of England or the Ultras of Europe was something I was keen to do but finding quite hard. It was something palpable but equally elusive. Pete Watson, an academic who wrote his PhD on Colombian football, described a barra as “an organised group of fans of a football club.” Over the course of his thesis, Watson referenced barras 19 times, showing them to be well-structured, often consisting of fans who felt marginalised by society and from “troubled communities” (although not exclusively), and regularly involved in positive grassroots community schemes in their respective barrios.
“Translating barras as hooligans misses the idea,” he has tweeted. Around fifty miles from the Colombian border and, as Gerzon Chacón told me, feeling a strong identity with their neighbouring country, I felt Watson’s research was applicable to Avalancha Sur. Their culture is no small fry. As the academic points out, “diverse aspects of the phenomenon of barra movements have already been the subject of research by a number of Colombian sociologists.”
At Deportivo Táchira, Avalancha Sur are undoubtedly respected. In Caracas, I was amazed to see a scruffy LDR member get his phone out and contact Venezuela’s Youth and Sports Minister in an attempt to help me retrieve my luggage. Nothing came of it and I wasn’t entirely sure he was as connected as he was making out. With Avalancha Sur, I saw the mutual cooperation and esteem first-hand. When we arrived at the complex, we stood outside the main building waiting for Gerzon Chacón. As we did so, a number of the first team arrived, all stopping to shake hands with us. Aside from heading up a branch of the barra, Roberto also has a clothing brand. That day, he was modelling his own snapback cap embroidered with one of the club’s historical crests. A player stopped to admire it and asked Roberto to make him a blacked-out version. Minutes later, Gerzon arrived and showed the same interest. At the headquarters, the stadium, the training pitch, and even in the players’ canteen, the barra had free run. They were not fans pestering for autographs or trigger happy with their camera phones, they were just another part of the institution.
“The barra culture here has been pioneering in its field and growth,” Gerzon told me. We had moved up to his office and although we were no longer in the company of my three new friends, it was hard not to start with the topic. “Other teams have joined in, and almost every team has one now. That has undoubtedly influenced one aspect of the culture towards violence. It’s related to the situation in the country too, though, because there is not just violence inside football but outside too. We have to improve this because it does happen sometimes. Our relationship with the barra has a lot to do with respect. As a team, we cannot be complicit in barra generated violence; their behaviour has to meet our standards. When it has happened, we have called the barra bosses because it damages the reputation of the institution. I think hooliganism is a running theme because of its strong background [in football], but we have not reached this point yet and we hope it does not happen, because if the barra begins to be a problem for the club, we will be forced to make decisions. The issue has been growing and we hope that it can be kept as peaceful as possible; if not, we will have to consider things like their admission rights.” Respectful it obviously is, but the dynamics of the relationship meant it was more akin to teacher and pupil rather than spouses or siblings – albeit one where the teacher is rather fond of the unruly pupil.
Deportivo Táchira started out as San Cristóbal Football Club in 1974, meaning it is only seven years older than Gerzon himself, who, born in the city, has gone through the evolution of fan to player and then player to Director of Football, all by the age of 39. Knowing the Tachirense culture and its idiosyncrasies is something he says has helped him a lot. Advancing through the youth ranks and spending less than five of his 20-year career away from the club merely seems like a useful bonus. Here, passion is the currency of the city. “I definitely have to be focused and balanced. As a fan, it’s the passion to watch a game and support the team that drives me, but certainly when making decisions, I have to think with my head and not my heart; differentiate the good from the bad. My passion is what brings me to work and my professionalism is what allows me to make decisions.” Immortalised as Capi (short for captain) and still greeted as so by fans and the players he manages – some of whom are former teammates – it is safe to say he will be granted some slack if the heart, as its prone to do in football, occasionally wins.
If Ronald, Apu, and Roberto are to be believed, Jorge Silva was once a barra member too. Supposing it is true, it is safe to say Táchira is one club that can genuinely say it is run by born and bred fans, adding authenticity to one of the slogans plastered around the complex and stadium: Sentimiento de un Pueblo. Meaning The Feeling of a People, the phrase is then followed by either envidia de todo un país or siempre de primera, depending on whether you are the fans or the club. The first translates as envy of the whole country and is emblazoned across a large Avalancha Sur flag, and the second means always in the Premier Division and is stencilled onto the walls of the training ground, canteen, and elsewhere around the facilities. The subtle difference keeps the institution the right side of crass but identifiable and connected to their fans. The barra’s appendage is boastful and direct, the club’s is indirect and borne out of fact: they are the only team in existence to have spent their entire life in the top flight. Founded in a time when there was only one tier and having never been relegated, it holds bragging rights over its two closest rivals: Estudiantes, who have suffered relegation, and Caracas, who began life in the Segunda División. The barra are proud of their club’s history and proud of themselves. The claim of Jorge Silva’s alleged barra membership came over a week after we had met, so I didn’t get to corroborate it with him, but the importance of the parable doesn’t rest with its truth: here was a president who the club’s most devout fans wanted to venerate as of the same cloth.