The ball blasts across the short, cement pitch like a bullet towards the goal. This happens every weekend and many weekday afternoons in neighborhoods throughout Cusco. Though like pick-up games among friends throughout the world, in that young men from a neighborhood come together to play with whoever is there, this fútbol, or soccer, has a difference in Cusco.
People play intensely, sweat often pouring off them despite the altitude and often child air. They compete hard to work the ball, sometimes regulation and sometimes not, down the field and to the goal. In the competition, the show of skill and ability, young men gain honor and status with other young men.
The ball smashed through the defenders and between the goal posts and I was surprised, not because they made a goal, but because no one made anything of it. They immediately started playing again as if nothing special had happened.
Once a second goal was made by the same team, everyone came to the sidelines while other young men entered and began playing. No one said anything about who won nor was there any fist pumping or celebration.
After the new players completed two goals a change happened again and the first set of players may have entered again. Thus it went until dusk, one game after another.
At the end, or when a team decided to call it a day, the players gathered and stood, or sat together, sometimes in a circle and sometimes in a kind of line. They bought a bear or a soda and passed the bottle around with a single cup. One person would pour himself some beverage and then hand the bottle to the next person. The first would down the drink, toss the remaining foam or drops on the ground and hand the glass to the person with the bottle who would then fill it for himself. In this way the bottle and glass made the rounds until empty,
The game ends with everyone sweaty, drinking one after another while their sweat dries and they joke and talk.
Winning seemed not to be that point. That surprised me, since I am from a culture of winning.
In tournaments, winning is crucial, but in these neighborhood games it seems beside the point.
This is a bit like something that Inge Bolin narrated for the community of Chillihuani, up in the highlands not too far from Cusco. In fact most of these young men’s parents and grandparents originate in communities with customs and culture similar to Chillihuani.
Bolin writes that for the feat of Santiago the young men of the community hold a horse race. The push themselves to the fullest, and yet it is almost embarrassing to win. No one says anything and the winner avoids the mention of the victory, despite all the effort and skill involved. Bolin insists the point is to celebrate the unity of the people with competition on the inside.
I think a similar idea is at work in the soccer games of Cuzco’s neighborhood. The young men compete ruthlessly, but winning is not the point. Playing the game is and along with it the solidarity of the young men in the neighborhood.
Inge Bolin, Rituals of Respect (University of Texas Press, 1998).