It’s Sunday, and Club Blooming and Oriente Petrolero are meeting in the 159th Clasico Cruceño. They’re the two biggest teams in Santa Cruz, a rapidly expanding city in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands, a 20-hour train ride from the Brazilian border.
The derby is famed for its combustible atmosphere and potential for violence both off and on the pitch (a notable incident in 2009 included a flying karate kick and criminal charges brought against a player). On this occasion it features two teams toiling in midtable. In five games each prior to the match, they’ve managed a combined total of eight goals.
Both sides call the Estadio Tahuichi Aguilera, a mile south of the city’s leafy plaza, home but it’s Blooming’s patch for the day. I’m advised to head to the ground six hours prior to pick-off to secure a ticket – “everyone is going,” a local Oriente fan tells me. Back home in England games of this magnitude warrant ticket applications perhaps five weeks in advance, not to mention ready plastic (how apt) of some sort. Arriving early to ensure entry is a throwback for a British football fan to days when sacrifices of time and effort were valued above size of bank accout; and at 60 Bolivianos you’ve got change from £6, meaning my ticket is less than six times what I pay per game for one of Old Trafford’s cheaper areas. As I leave the ground, swag sellers already line the streets trading shirts, food, scarves and even jester hats.
A mile from the ground and an hour from kick-off and the streets are eerily, disappointingly quiet. It’s only in the shadow of El Tahuichi’s east curva that you see swathes of blue and white as Blooming’s fans congregate in a relaxed, convivial atmosphere. It’s a different story at the other end: Oriente’s fans are in full party mode; a swell of jiving and percussion amid a sea of green and white. There doesn’t seem to be any real needle outside the ground, and the police presence is relatively low.
Inside the ground the story is the same. Oriente occupy the curva to the west and are a festive mix of balloons, drums and horns. At the opposite end Blooming seem moodier; they’re less colourful and boo Oriente’s more rambunctious efforts, letting off firecrackers while a small central group try to get it going. The respective ‘ends’ are rammed. The general section houses fans of both sides, who mix without issues; the slight majority are of the green persuasion, giving Oriente an overall majority on their ‘away’ day.
Plastic cushions are handed out for those who don’t fancy 90 minutes of stone on their backsides. The police presence remains relatively low, yet visible, and the job of stewarding is theirs alone – although they leave you to your own devices, within reason. As the atmosphere builds, tiny planes and a helicopter would scrape the stadium’s roof if it had one, as they make their descent to the nearby domestic airport.
Oriente’s players are welcomed by firecrackers, toilet paper, regular paper, ticker tape, green balloons and the collective roar of their supporters. Blooming’s are offered a show less colourful but just as loud; the effect of a huge blue flag is lost behind a wall of smoke emanating from their pyrotechnic display.
The game itself is low on quality but high on entertainment. Oriente are on top but their defence seems intent on causing problems for themselves, giving Blooming the clearer chances. The atmosphere ebbs slightly; perhaps a mixture of the game’s tension and the wearing off of the cerveza, none of which is sold in the ground. Riot police use shields to guard a Blooming player from missiles as he takes a corner. Oriente’s more expansive football leads to a goal just before half-time from midfielder Fernando Saucedo and the green curva and most of the general sections erupt.
Following half-time Oriente’s dithering at the back finally costs them and Blooming’s French-Argentine striker Hugo Bargas draws the blues level and sends their fans into rapture. They should have a second soon after, and the party is starting in the east corner. Oriente manage to ride it out though and regain control, soon hitting the bar and forcing two great saves out of the man of the match, Blooming’s goalkeeper Sergio Galarza. As time runs out things even up again, and both sides seem to smell a winner. A late sending off means Oriente – denied a penalty claim in the dying seconds – end the game with ten men. A draw is probably fair although Oriente have been marginally better, and it’s clear to see how they’ve now conspired to draw five of their opening six games.
As the final whistle blows, the referee is surrounded by players, officials and, quickly, riot police, as a melee unfathomable from the stands develops in the middle of the pitch. The players head in dribs and drabs towards the tunnel as Oriente’s fans – who without being deafening have sang relentlessly throughout the game – continue with their vocal support. Blooming’s fans launch yet more firecrackers and it’s impossible to see what’s going on from the southwest corner of the ground.
It later emerges that missiles – or fireworks, to be more specific – thrown by Blooming supporters in the curva have landed in the immediate vicinity of Oriente manager Erwin Sanchez on his way to the tunnel, and he ends up in a heap on the floor. The pyrotechnics don’t end there as Blooming set fire to paper in the stand. The police – later criticized for reacting slowly – then respond by launching tear gas into the Blooming section.
“It didn’t hit [Sanchez], it missed him,” a local shrugs the next day. Bolivian national newspaper El Deber is less forgiving, dubbing the match “The Clasico of Terror in El Tahuichi”; the sport section’s headline is “Out Of Control”, while the front page simply reads “Embarrassment after the draw”. League secretary Roger Bello promises decisive action against Blooming. Talk turns to other players and journalists hit by the fireworks, and even the possibility of closing the Estadio Tahuichi Aguilera.
“It’s not usually like that,” an Oriente fan assures me the next day, almost apologizing while also providing her alibi of being in the opposite curva to the chaos. It’s clear that even in hot-blooded Bolivian football, these sorts of explosive exchanges don’t come by every weekend. But then, neither does the Clasico Cruceño.
You can read more from Chris at Northern Sould.