Fan Culture as Community in Caracas

I’ve been a serial note-taker all my life. Doodling in the back pages of school exercise books, writing reminders in biro on my hands, and noting down quotes whenever they resonate or affect me profoundly. One of my old bosses was a walking rent-a-quote, a fountain of trivia, a jukebox of nostalgic anecdotes. He was awful at his job and somehow worse at leading, but he had this unacademic knowledge largely made up of his own astute observations and snippets from books he had memorised.

In one of my previously failed attempts of keeping a journal, I noted down something he said about Boris Johnson, who at the time was bumbling his way through his tenure as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom: “If you’re beyond parody, you’re safe.” It’s got the balanced sentence structure and appealing repetition that makes a fairly short and mundane quip long-lasting and timeless in the memory.

It’s a phraseology I’ve used personally, in private, to structure some of my core beliefs ever since: and in football, the sport I love passionately, a truth I hold is that if you’re beyond the pitch, you’re timeless. Players come and go, coaches too. In the 21st century even stadiums that have stood for over 100 years are heartwrenchingly replaced with IKEA-like pop-ups at an alarming rate. Shirts change every year, sponsors are on ever-shortening deals even changing midseason (often within a parent brand), and now countless clubs are modifying their badges into circular stock images in the name of appeal and aesthetics.

So what’s beyond the pitch? For me, it’s fan culture. Even more distilled, it’s the matchday experience. Perhaps ironically, nothing is written down, stories trickle from generation to generation by word of mouth, away days are immortalised and embellished by age, and home games are history in the making–nostalgia in formation. And in that spirit, I don’t quote anyone in this article. I tell stories, sure; how they were told to me and how I internalised them, washed down with beer, kept down by a hotdog, and woven with half glances towards the pitch to watch players I perhaps won’t recognise in 40 years but in the company of faces I won’t forget, telling me tales I will remember.

fan culture, community, Caracas, Caracas Futbol Club, Venezuela, Venezuelan football, barra, football ultras, Los Demonios Rojos, family friendly, football fans, football community, live football, matchday experience
Artwork by Onkar Shirsekar

I am a Saints fan, but I am a Caracas supporter. For me, there’s a clear difference between fan and supporter, but that’s a different article for a different day. Let’s just say I would deem it disrespectful to ever call myself a Caracas fan. Since moving to Venezuela three years ago, I can count the number of home games I have missed on my hands.

There are four top-flight teams in Venezuelan football based in the capital, but Caracas is the only one with a significant fan culture and a noteworthy barra (think ultras, if you’re European). In that sense, I didn’t make my decision based on football at all. The view is abysmal and, although they are historically the most successful club in Venezuela, they’ve lost two finals to their arch-rivals since I have been following them, are on a 17-game winless streak, and finished the first half of the 2024 season as the lowest-ranked team in the capital.

It’s a good job I don’t go to the stadium for the football. I go to see my friends. I go to keep a finger on the pulse of the city I now call home. I go to introduce my daughters to football in a safe but not sanitised environment. I go for everything off the pitch. I go because the Caracas barra, Los Demonios Rojos, are beyond the pitch.

Of course, they care about the football. In recent years they’ve incurred stadium bans from their own club, been refused the right of admission on away days, stolen opposition flags, and, in numbers that are powerful in their insignificance, have travelled to Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil to follow the club on their winless 2024 Copa Libertadores campaign. None of that happens without an unfathomable amount of love for football–but neither does it occur without something more, something intangible, something that in words can only be gotten close to by describing it as ‘community spirit’.

Beyond the pitch they fundraise for fellow fans, they receive and disseminate donations to the local community, they go to local old people’s homes to provide the residents company, and they support one another’s businesses with a masonic-like brotherhood. To have watched it from the outside-in and to now observe it from the inside-out is a wholesome experience that has confirmed what I really love about football—that such community-based altruism within this sport still exists. Best of all, it affords me the raw, authentic matchday experiences that died a death in England’s top divisions during the 90s.

If I’m going to the game without my wife and kids (a dwindling occurrence given the little ones’ growing love of the game and my love’s growing enjoyment of the spectacle), I’ll arrive an hour or two before kick off and either stand on the UNESCO-protected plaza between the football and baseball stadiums drinking one dollar beer and chatting to Fagundez, or I’ll go through the turnstiles and sit with Jorge and Giorgina.

Giorgina used to date Salomon Rondon; she was his prom date or something. They both grew up in Catia, a barrio home to several national team players including Cristian Casseres (Toulouse) and Alexander Gonzalez (Emelec). It’s a fact used to slightly tease Giorgina’s long-term partner and fellow barra member Canario, nicknamed as such for his fearless scaling of the stadium’s infrastructure and floodlights to tie up the trapos and flags. And because he’s always singing during the games. The three of them run a Iced Tea stall on matchdays; Jorge, a former Caracas player himself not yet 40, diligently mans the stall for the full 90 minutes, watching the game through the gap between the stands.

If I choose to stay on the plaza until closer to kickoff, I’m normally entertained with the latest stories of the Fagundez father and son (both also called Jorge). In 2022, they were the only two Caracas fans living in Venezuela who attended all three of the club’s away games in the Copa Libertadores: Athletico Paranaense in Brazil, Libertad in Paraguay, and The Strongest in Bolivia. It was a logistical and economical feat necessitating a fine balance of risk and bravery, but even more so considering the last time Fagundez Jr. had gone abroad for a Caracas game, he got stuck in Colombia for over a year because of the COVID pandemic.

If I delay entering the stadium for long enough, I’ll encounter El Flaco Viejo. I don’t even think that’s his actual nickname but I don’t know his real name even after five years of knowing him. He’s rake thin and old. In Venezuela, nicknames tend to be brutally descriptive. I’ve fallen into the habit. I’m El Ingles. Sometimes simply Southampton. El Flaco should probably be called Wikipedia. He’s the one who told me Chelsea were the first and only professional English club to play in Venezuela, for example. I’ll also bump into El Mica. His real name is Jonny Micarelli. He’s a very popular standup comedian in the capital and has his own radio show. When he’s not being paid to entertain, he’s still entertaining. He’s the kind of guy who would manage to conjure an observation out of a barren desert.

I can’t delay entering the stadium for too long, though. Firstly, Venezuelan football fans don’t seem too prepared when it comes to matchday, arriving in droves five minutes before kickoff to buy their tickets with many consequentially missing the first five minutes despite crowds rarely meeting half-capacity. And secondly, I’d miss the ‘walk-in’.

The barra’s drum section (plus the odd trumpet) congregate just outside the main entrance to the South Stand and ramp up the atmosphere with some classics before leading the bulk of the fans up the stairs and into the rows. Some of the barra leaders aren’t happy if regular faces aren’t there for that touchstone part of the matchday ritual.

Two of the faces I’ll encounter there are those of Tall Moises (again, I am probably the only one who calls him that, but there’s a Moises considerably shorter than him whose nickname is Cholito because there is a Cholo bigger than him) and…Cholo.

Tall Moises used to hate me, even if just for one day. I’d already been going to Caracas games and standing with the barra for a few months when I first met him, but I’d obviously not registered in his mind. For the 2021 Gran Final between Caracas and Deportivo Tachira, I had been commissioned to make a documentary for COPA90. That day I was at the stadium as a journalist.

Tall Moises doesn’t like journalists. He told me. He doesn’t like cameras either. He said my equipment would get broken if I didn’t disappear. He was a bit more forceful than that, as you can imagine. The situation solved itself and I now consider him a friend. Ironically, he’s a photographer’s dream and is regularly on the club’s social media accounts, up the fence surrounding the pitch with his 6’4” frame, tattoo-covered torso tense as he balances with his arms aloft and his thick afro-like hair and broad grin accentuating whatever the result was that week.

Photogenic for other reasons is Geralbert. He’s literally a catwalk model. A lot of the guys at the football have their shirt off the entire time. He’s in the minority that can aesthetically justify it. He’s normally in the vicinity of the aforementioned Cholo, one of the barra leaders. I’m not sure Cholo liked me to begin with, either, but since then he’s had a kid and the longer I’ve stuck around the closer we’ve become. He’s the kind of guy who gives you the sense that he’d probably have your back when needed but probably wouldn’t communicate it. Both of them seem to be at every single game, home and away. In Venezuela that is no easy feat.

At half-time, I’ll refill on beer and try to stay on top of the maths required for whatever strange combo deal the vendors have on this week and order a burger from Vanderley’s stall. Two for a fiver, those. I think Vanderley is the most tattooed man I know. He’s the only one I was genuinely scared of when I first started going to Caracas games. He’s got these intensely piercing eyes that can then go murderously vacant in an instant. I think I’d stand near him if things kicked off. But he’s the nicest guy. He greets my wife and kids with genuine warmth, keeps an eye on the girls as they’re running around, and points out if I’ve missed a potential hazard in their play. He’s started inviting me to the barra’s Monday night football games, which has enabled me to tick off one of my Venezuelan Bucket List items: Play at Caracas’ training ground.

And talking of my girls, when they come, there is always Camila, a Colombian girl with a camera who will take the most wonderful candid photos of us and share them with me after the games, and Bob, one of the drummers. In the stand, the drummers’ section is off limits to the rest of the fans. They need their space. That is unless you’re a young kid and then, on invitation, you can sneak in and bang along on one of the spare drums or beat some spare sticks together. Venezuela is very family oriented, very child friendly. Matchdays are no different. It helps that Bob wears a Spider-Man mask during games. My girls love Spider-Man.

And they’ve already got their own little friends at the game. Bob’s daughter, a similar age to mine, comes to a good number of games, as does Armando’s. Not only are matchdays a lot more family friendly than I found football in England, but the amount of female faces in the crowd is far higher, too. And all naturally occurring. It’s not the result of some promotional push triggered by quotas. It’s embedded in the culture. Armando is a single dad who brings his infant daughter to games not because he doesn’t have childcare, but because it is accepted. I think he’d bring her regardless, though. He’s a thoroughly bohemian character; very intelligent and alert, probably capable of doing almost anything. Instead he’s dedicated his life to his musical and artistic endeavours, Caracas Futbol Club, and his daughter.

There’s a new generation coming through, too. Cholo’s baby girl is now more of a toddler and Mauricio has recently become another young dad in the barra. And yet another girl! There must be something in the water, not that you can drink it.

It’s a good job I don’t go to the stadium for the football because Caracas have been awful this year. But it’s a good job I go to the stadium for the friends because they, as always, are great.

Jordan Florit

Jordan is an insatiable reader, as well as a writer. He reads and writes about Latin America, politics, psychology, sociology and psychology. He is the author of "Red Wine and Arepas: How Football is Becoming Venezuela’s Religion".