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Searching for the Saddest Kid in Cusco (Twice)

Even in a soccer riot, the gringos are sure they know exactly what’s best for you.

The first time we found Miguel, the saddest kid in Cusco, he was outside Cusco’s football stadium. It was game day, and hundreds of food stalls had bloomed around the stadium. Miguel was trying to nurse a screaming, squirming baby that wasn’t much smaller than him while his mum popped corn for the snackish sports fans.

My mate and I had just arrived in Cusco when an exuberant Canadian asked us if we wanted to come to a football game. Our last South American football experience had not been the knife-fighting-in-the-bleachers affair that I had hoped for. Perhaps the continent could redeem its football-mad reputation.

Our daft posse was made of the Canadian, an American and three Australians. If we’d pooled our collective Spanish we would have had a few semi-cogent sentences. Individually we were useless.

Approaching the stadium, we were set upon by scalpers. They offered a price and told us each ticket was good for two people. It all sounded kind of suspect, but some helpful passing policemen informed us that yes, the scalpers were quite correct, and very honest.

Three tickets good for six people. We had a spare spot. I suggested we could take one of the ubiquitous street kids with us. This idea quickly evolved and mutated, until we were determined to find a really down-and-out kid, the kind of kid who just needed a little gringo benevolence to help turn his life around. We decided to find the saddest kid in Cusco, and take him to the football.

We trawled the streets around the stadium, looking for our diamond in the rough. It didn’t take long to find Miguel. Struggling to hold onto the monster infant in his arms, squinting in the sun, waiting for someone to buy his mum’s popcorn.

The Canadian approached Miguel’s mum. He held up the tickets. He tried to mime taking Miguel with us. We all smiled. Miguel looked worried. Mum was enthusiastic though; she nudged Miguel, and when he wouldn’t move, insisted that he go with us. Reluctantly he handed over the baby and came with us, his eyes down, his hands jammed into the pockets of his worn pants.

The entrance to the stadium was thronging with rowdy kids trying to find someone with a spare half-ticket for them. None of them looked nearly as miserable as Miguel though. We congratulated ourselves as we passed through the jostling crowd and entered the stadium, sitting behind one of the goals.

A steady trickle of people were entering the stadium, which was far from big and far from full. Cienciano, the local team, were surprise South American champions, having defeated Argentine giants Boca Juniors for the title. Still, few people were turning out to see the champions play. Each of us tried striking up a conversation with Miguel. He replied with short answers in a disconsolate voice. We congratulated ourselves again on having truly found the saddest kid in Cusco. We bought drinks and plied him with snacks.

I hadn’t even noticed the drums and the horns until they were right behind us. One minute we were sitting alone by the goals, the next a sea of red and white swept over us. Cienciano’s diehard fans had arrived. They carried drums, trumpets, flags and fire extinguishers. One guy, who was referred to only as ‘the Inca’, carried a bullwhip doubled up in his fist.

Flags were unfurled, drums were smashed, and the fanatics took up positions all around us. They of course wanted to know what the hell we were doing there, sitting behind the goals of the greatest team in the world (at least that’s what we think they were asking). We tried to gather up enough words to reply, while keeping an eye on Miguel, who wasn’t enjoying the attentions of the fanatic kids.

A long, inflatable tunnel phallused its way out onto the field, and with a re-explosion of noise, Ciencianos took the field. I didn’t really get why the giant tunnel was necessary, but was distracted by the arrival of the fanatics’ retinue of riot police who carried long rubber batons and stood in lines surrounding the madness.

The game started and was a whole lot less interesting than the people around us. Miguel kept his gaze down and probably didn’t see any of the game. When Ciencianos did eventually net a goal kids ran among us spraying fire extinguishers, coating everything in thick red powder and obscuring one end of the field in choking clouds. At the other end of the stadium something was on fire.

Towards the end of the game Ciencianos scored again. When the red haze cleared (again), it revealed the visiting team manager, furious on the sideline, dancing around and screaming at anyone who approached him. The fanatics would have none of this; they pelted the sideline with whatever was at hand. It was the beginning of the end. Riot police with shields came on to protect the manager, and the giant inflatable tunnel re-appeared to shepherd the players off the field and into safety. I was quietly pleased; a real, live soccer riot was exactly what I had expected of South America.

Then the riot police came our way, swinging their batons. The fanatics scampered in every direction. The Inca swung about with his doubled-up whip, scattering the slower fans. As we beat our own hasty retreat, someone realised that Miguel was missing.

How had the five of us managed to lose our miserable, adopted kid? We couldn’t even figure out when he had disappeared. Searching for Miguel while dodging police and fanatics proved difficult. We decided to split up, one group searching outside while we continued searching the stadium. We’d hardy begun though, when the police decided it was time to run everyone out of the stadium. We were swept along by the jubilant fans, and deposited unceremoniously in the street. The stadium gates closed behind us.

The Canadian found us before we found him. He was out of breath, but elated. They’d found Miguel. He led us back to the popcorn cart. There was Miguel again, back with his mum and the squirming baby. What had happened? His mum explained that he had missed her, and so had decided to come back to be with her. It seemed ridiculous; hadn’t he enjoyed our warm gringo generosity? He looked as sad as ever, but didn’t seem inclined to move again from his place. His mum prodded him to say thankyou.

We left Miguel with his mum, and walked away as Cusco raged around us.