SANTIAGO, Chile -- Out of the tens of thousands of people gathered in la Plaza Italia, The Chilean standing in front of me may well have been the only sober person, so his words carry some extra weight. He used his piercing stare to burst through the language barrier. "For your security," he warned, "go back to your hotel."
"But I'm a journalist," I tell him, and forge onward. I don't make it 100 feet before another Chilean grabs me by the shoulders: "It is dangerous here. You should go home."
The Mapocho River runs through Santiago de Chile. This, in itself, is not all that dangerous or unique; most old cities have rivers. But in a city with a mountain backdrop and photogenic European architecture, the river is a defining feature. It's fed by a glacier in the Andes Mountains and gains speed on its way to the Pacific Ocean. By the time the river reaches Santiago, it flows, unlike most city rivers, with a rapid abandonment. It's the kind of river you want to avoid.
As Spain discovered, you might also want to avoid the Chilean national team. It attacks with a swiftness and relentlessness unequaled in the World Cup field. Chile's win against Spain killed so many birds with one stone that they're now wanted for animal cruelty. The win clinched Chile's spot in the knockout round while eliminating the reigning World Cup champions and one of the greatest soccer teams in history. Not to mention, Chile vanquished a team that they had never been able to beat, as El Mercurio, the national paper, reminded the people in the morning edition, documenting all of Chile's losses to Spain since the 1950 World Cup. Also, depending on how far back you believe soccer politics remain in a country's consciousness, Chile is a former Spanish colony.
This is Chile's best team in decades. Led by Arturo Vidal, perhaps the world's best all-around player, and Alexis Sanchez, Barcelona's dynamic attacker, Chile is in the midst of a "golden generation," as Santiago Times sports writer Angus McNeice told me. Because the World Cup is every four years, national teams tend to have small windows of opportunity. Since Vidal, 27, and Sanchez, 25, will be into their 30s by the 2018 tournament, combined with Chile's underperforming youth teams, many feel as if their time is now or never. After defeating Spain, Chileans were very much embracing the now.
The chant of "Chi-Chi-Chi! Le-Le-Le! Viva Chile!" echoed as if the Andes keep the sound waves within the city valley. Thousands upon thousands of fans poured into la Plaza Italia. When I arrived about half an hour after the match, the surrounding blocks had morphed into unnavigable rivers of people.
At first, the mood is celebratory. It's still daylight, keeping most on their best behavior. A small drone flies overhead along with several helicopters at higher altitudes. A giant, national anthem-sized flag is unfurled and spread across the entire boulevard. There's a V-Day level of euphoria, as strangers embrace -- and ask one another for kisses, which everyone seems to oblige -- and confetti is thrown into the air, which upon further inspection, seems to be donated paper shreds from local office buildings.
But the jovial atmosphere would fade as the day turned to night. As the mood darkened along with the sky, I thought about the old philosophical puzzle regarding how many grains of sand must be removed from a heap in order for it to no longer be a heap. I considered this in the context of the celebration: At what point does a celebration become a riot? Is it when something lights on fire? When flares are deployed? When the first police barricade is breached? When the first person is beaten by a police baton? When the first water cannon is deployed? Or the first rubber bullet fired?
The police barricade had been shaking for a while, recoiling under the weight of dozens of people. They rock it back and forth, gaining leverage against its heavy base so they can tip it over like a soda machine. Like a sea wall bursting, the barricade tumbles with a great crash, cheers soar through the air and the fans rush a statue faster than a Sanchez burst up the wing. Within an instant, the fans had enveloped the statue, absorbing it as one of them draping themselves all over it. I didn't even have time to make a note of which statue it was. For the rest of the night, they resided on the statue in a leisurely, flag-waving way reminiscent of so many soldiers riding on tank turrets.
It's not clear why they felt the need to do this. At the time the first barricade was broken, I was speaking to a woman named Carla who spent seven months studying in Dayton, Ohio. She said the people storming the barricade were "just stupid." unmotivated by any larger ideology. She lamented that a celebratory demonstration invariably resulted in instigation and malfeasance. Soccer, it seems, could never just be soccer.
After attempting to circumnavigate the crowds, I realize the mass possessed a universe-like shape, where every time I passed one event horizon I would find another. It's around this time that I was repeatedly warned to go home. The mass' expanse only heightened the looming danger.
As I wade further into the scene, people see my camera and ask me to take pictures of them. I oblige, line up the shot, set the flash and exposure, and before I know it we are getting mobbed by more people wanting to be in the picture. I then have to redo all the settings to accommodate the wider angle and changed light, and on it would go. Eventually I have to settle for a crappy picture, lest the crowd absorb me as they did the statue, and move on. The further in I went, the more we would get mobbed, only exacerbating the problem.
There's always the temptation to link soccer violence with some greater purpose or unrest, especially during the World Cup, and even more so when it involves a former colony eliminating its former ruler. Sometimes, those connections simply aren't there, as globalization has eroded many linkages between a nation's team and its people. But, while my feet were getting swept from me as more and more Chileans converged, I start to believe the riot -- if you would go as far as to call it that -- did mean something.
The Chilean team plays soccer like the Mapocho River: swift and intense, with a built-up energy finally ready to be released. The people celebrate like it, too. They collapse upon you, absorb you, and pull you under the surface before you can cry for help, your calls drowning in an ocean. They're swift and perhaps unstoppable. Chile is a rapid river fed by a glacier that has been slowly melting for decades. Maybe the best thing is to listen to the rapids smack against the concrete river wall, heed its warnings and get out of the way. Chile's time has come.