Watching football in soccer country
The perils of being a football fan in futbol lands
Special to PTU
Imagine it’s Packer Sunday. You go to a bar to watch the game with some friends. For the previous week on the bar’s web page and their front door there have been bright letters reading, “Packer Game Will Be Shown Here.” You arrive early, take a seat, shift a frosty beer on the coaster in front of you, look up to observe the kick off … only to witness Barcelona take the pitch against Real Madrid. You look to the left and right, but there’s nothing but soccer on every single screen.
Holding back your uncontainable mix of outrage, homicidal fury, and childlike terror, you turn to the bartender and ask, “Aren’t you showing the Packer game?”
“Naw… we decided to show this instead.”
They’re prone to changing things at the last second in Lima.
“But there are thirty TVs in here, can’t you put the game on just one of them?”
“I’m afraid not, there’s only one feed.”
The technology tends to lag behind as well.
At this point, your hand clenches so hard on your beer that the force sends an amber geyser to the ceiling and embeds shards of broken glass into your hand.
Such was my life for nearly a decade.
From 2001 to 2009, I lived in Lima, Peru. I’ve been a fan of the Packers since the 1988 season when Randy Wright and Don Majkowski led the Packers to four glorious wins (two of which were over the odious 11-5 Vikings, so take that Minnesota). I don’t question my allegiance, watching the Packers and reading about them during the off-season relaxes me. Most things in life antagonize me, so anything that puts me at ease is welcome.
The span of 2001 to 2009 was mainly the “legend” portion of the Favre era. All of those games were sacred, but I was presented with a problem: local television preferred to show semi-pro soccer games rather than the NFL.
In my earliest years abroad, my only recourse was to go to an internet cafe and listen to the game on the radio. I’d sit in a grimy little booth and watch a stats ticker as the Packers battled their way to a couple 12-win seasons.
International licensing is strange for countries that don’t have a vast, football audience. I soon figured out that the local TV stations would pick one NFL game per week and show it at 3 a.m. However, there was never any way of telling which game it would be, the listing just said: NFL 3-7 a.m. So I’d stay up until 3, and every now and then the Packers would magically be featured.
You’d pray for things like Monday night football, or Thursday games because you actually had a chance of seeing those. I’d always plan my return visits to the US to incorporate three Sundays if possible, and I never came home on a bye week. Using ingenuity, I managed to see about half the games in that era.
Things got better as the years went on. The Corner bar next to the Marriot Hotel on Calle Larco started branding itself as an NFL bar to appeal to the gringo crowd. Almost overnight, the Corner became the best place to meet new Americans who were living in Peru and suffering through the poor football coverage.
The first year was perfect, DirecTV had a full NFL package available to Peru and we could watch any game just like back home. We thought all our prayers had been answered. But the next year, DirecTV changed its package to only feature three of the early Sunday contests. If your team wasn’t one of the ones selected, too bad.
“Can you put the Packer game on?”
“I’m sorry we can only show Cleveland vs. Kansas City, Jacksonville vs. Buffalo, and Miami vs. Tennessee this week.”
“What idiot put that schedule together? NOBODY wants to watch ANY of those games!”
At the time, I was working for a small publication in Lima, so I wrote an article about DirecTVs terrible NFL coverage. To my surprise, I received a telephone call from a DirecTV executive who explained what was going on.
“You have to understand,” the executive said, “this is a football package that was designed by a soccer fan.”
“What does that even mean?”
“Soccer fans just want to watch great soccer, they aren’t as focused on single teams. Nobody wants to watch the bad teams play.”
“But the games you picked for this weekend are bad! Can’t you change the system? It was perfect last year.”
“No, I’m afraid not, however,” and here the executive’s voice got conspiratorial, “Puerto Rico still has a license for last year’s DirecTV package.”
“That does me no good,” I said, “I’m in Lima.”
“Yes, but if somebody brings a receiver in from Puerto Rico, you can get all the games. You just need to point that receiver at the Puerto Rico satellite, I know a tech who can do it.”
I suddenly realized what he was pitching.
“How much?” I asked.
“One thousand U.S.”
“Let me think about it.”
I hung up. I discussed the proposal with my friends, but we eventually concluded that we didn’t have a thousand dollars to spend on a hair-brained scheme that would probably turn out to be a con. We suffered through the year, every now and then getting lucky enough to see our favorite teams play on Sunday and otherwise catching them on Thursday or Monday.
DirecTV stubbornly persisted with the same terrible package for the next season, but that year, when we went into the Corner, we got a surprise.
“What game do you want to watch?”
“Packers vs. Detroit, but it’s not on the DirecTV package.”
“Oh, I can get that for you,” the bartender said, lifting up the control and changing the TV directly in front of me.
Suddenly the whole world was bathed in green and gold.
“But… how did you do that?”
“We purchased a receiver from Puerto Rico,” the bartender said with a wink.
Around 2007, the internet in Lima started becoming faster and more reliable. For $100, Yahoo offered an online streaming package to see all the games. Ironically, you prayed for your team to play early on Sunday because the internet tended to become overworked and choppy for the late games. Nothing can cut you right to the soul like watching Aaron Rodgers drop back on fourth down in a desperate bid in a comeback attempt, only to freeze there as the computer gives you a “wait” icon that spins in circles for hours and hours.
I bought a projector for those online games and converted a wall of my apartment to a screen. We had a massive party the first time Favre faced the Packers as a member of the Vikings. Every time they called Favre a “gunslinger” we had to take a drink. We had a whole list, including kamikaze requirements like taking a shot if they showed a clip of Favre’s TD pass to Freeman in the Super Bowl, or Greg Jennings catching the record TD pass. We even had a referee to enforce the drinking game requirements. After the game, we stumbled out into the street and played football with random passers-by. When I reflected on it later, I concluded some of them might not have wanted to play.
The only problem in that era was the playoffs, as the Yahoo package didn’t include playoff games. Somehow, the Corner managed to get those games, so the same crew as before would reunite down there and watch just like in prior years.
Every single Packer Sunday brought anxiety. You’d hope to be able to see the game, but actually doing so turned out to be a bit of a scavenger hunt. The worst part was that you couldn’t trust advertisements or TV listings because those were subject to change at the absolute last minute.
Heck, even when the game actually started, you lived in perpetual fear of somebody changing the channel. It was horrible, it was agonizing, and, as I write this, I realize there was something about that environment of guerrilla football spectating that I really, really miss.
Walter Rhein is the author of Beyond Birkie Fever and Reckless Traveler which deals with his time living in Lima, Peru. Learn more at: IncaExpat.com.