With about 25 minutes left in D.C. United’s last match at RFK, the non-natives who’d been rooting on the home team got really restless.
United was leading the San Jose Clash 3-0 at the time, but the fans in the lower regions of the north side of the stadium nevertheless lustily proclaimed dissatisfaction. They screamed for more; not more goals—more booze.
“Cerveza! Cerveza! Cerveza! Cerveza!” chanted the occupants of Section 126, en masse and loud enough for everybody in RFK to hear, if not understand. And while screaming their imported beer cheer, the innately soccer-crazy cluster jumped up and down on their seats, causing the bleachers to sway and roll à la Redskins-Cowboys.
From its inception, the local entrant in the fledgling confederation known as Major League Soccer has reached out to an international clientele. Whereas the Los Angeles Galaxy brought in Melrose Place’s Andrew Shue to stir up interest among star-struck Southern Californians, United’s advertising campaigns featured the team’s Latino players.
In some respects, the marketing strategy has worked too well: United games are currently broadcast on Spanish-speaking WMDO-AM, but there are no English-speaking radio or television transmissions. A typical United crowd can claim more cultures than an NIH lab, but of all the ethnicities in evidence, it is the Bolivian rooters who have put together the loudest, most rambunctious clique at RFK.
The Bolivians are also the easiest to locate.
Game after game, the north side of the stadium at field level has been where groups of expatriates or early-generation Bolivian-Americans congregate and throw a mini–Mardi Gras, complete with dance lines, exotic headdresses, multilingual banners and cheers, infectiously grand smiles, and of course, cerveza, lots and lots of cerveza.
Though 36,000 fans came to the home opener, no subsequent games have had crowds even half as large. United’s dismal performance early in the season, combined with the bad weather in D.C. on most game nights so far, has held down attendance. But Section 126 has been packed for every game, and the San Jose date was single-section SRO. Watching the Bolivians go over the top for the game of soccer is at least as entertaining as the on-field action.
The Section 126 set has dubbed itself “Barra Loca”—“Crazy Fans.” Some of the more boisterous rooters prefer to go by “Barra Braba,” a name given soccer hooligans in South America. Still, one Bolivian at the San Jose game conceded that the RFK throng, raucous as it was, was “a cup of milk” compared with the real deal. In the second half against San Jose, Nelson, a Bolivian-born lawyer who acts as something of a ringleader for the Barra Loca, says it will take a lot more than a losing streak and rain to impair his compadres’ ability to throw a great party.
“We will continue to come to the games of D.C. United, and we will act the same no matter how the team does,” laughs Nelson, who relocated to the U.S. 12 years ago. “We’re not here for a win or a loss. We just love soccer! We love it!”
While making the declaration of love, Nelson is balancing himself on the handrails of his chair and holding a cardboard tray stuffed with five cups of beer. Nelson had to trek all the way up to the stadium concourse to procure the libations, and he told the thirsty souls around him that he fully intended to drink them all. Because everyone is in the section standing on chairs, Nelson can’t afford to sit down and sip his beers leisurely. Instead, he has to maintain a tight grasp on the drink tray and take quick guzzles on those rare occasions when Section 126 isn’t in its bouncing mode. The drinking/balancing act, a tough task for the stone sober, isn’t the least bit problematic for a member of the Barra Loca.
RFK Stadium management is still learning how to deal with the blatantly hyperactive but wholly nonthreatening Bolivian fans. There have been some growing pains. Beginning with United’s second home game, for example, security introduced a ludicrous policy of impounding musical implements brought in by ticketholders. Enforcement of the silly rule has been spotty, but in the first half of the San Jose match, Salvatore Gonzalez, a Bolivian national and proud member of the Barra Loca, was led away for brandishing a pair of cymbals. But after leading him back to the security office, the guards allowed Gonzalez to return to his seat with his noisemakers.
“The stadium guards were telling me we make a lot of noise, too much noise,” Gonzalez, a professional musician now living in Reston, complained upon his return. “But isn’t that the point?”
The RFK ushers and security guards have also taken to making periodic, hilariously futile attempts at getting 126ers to get down from their seat rails and sit on their hands—just like the feckless yuppies who populate the rest of the stadium. Whenever the misguided guards actually made a pass, the section would launch into jumping fits and chants of “Salta! Salta! Salta! El Que No Salta, No Es Boliviano!” (“Jump! Jump! Jump! If You Don’t Jump, You’re Not Bolivian!”), a holdover cheer from World Cup ’94.
For whatever reason, the stadium’s beer vendors weren’t bringing their wares around to Section 126 during the San Jose game, a slight that didn’t go unnoticed by the foreign denizens.
“The beer man don’t want to come down to us anymore,” laughed Orlando Murilla, a Section 126 regular whose Arlington eatery, Tutto Bene, has hosted parties for the Barra Loca. Rather than lodge a formal protest with the stadium over the informal prohibition that’s been implemented on them at United games, the Bolivians have made do by buying beers in bulk from the concourse, as Nelson did. And as long as the drought continues, they’ll air their grievances in the form of the “Cerveza!” cheer.
As the clock wound down on United’s 3-1 victory in the San Jose game, the revelers stopped chanting in their native tongue for the first time. Instead, they counted off the final seconds “four…three…two…one…”—in perfectly good English. And after a few minutes’ worth of postgame celebration, the section emptied out and left the stadium in conga-line formation. By the time the joyous procession reached the exits, several dozen gringos had discarded their inborn inhibitions and fallen in line. It was a sight that would make even Pat Buchanan smile. This is how the melting pot is supposed to work. This is fun.—Dave McKenna