When Caracas Fans Made it Rain at the Clasico

When Deportivo Tachira arrived in the capital of Caracas at the start of March, they were on an unprecedented unbeaten run in Venezuelan football. Stretching back nearly a year, Eduardo Sarago’s men had not tasted defeat in 33 games. Their last loss, 2-0 to Metropolitanos, was at the Estadio Olímpico de la UCV, which is where they were headed again—this time to play arch-rivals Caracas Futbol Club in Venezuela’s biggest derby, El Clasico Moderno.

The hosts had lost an unbeaten run of their own the last time they were at El Olímpico: after 9 victories and 10 draws, Los Rojos’ 19-game unbeaten home run came to an end in the 88th minute of an eventual 0-1 loss to Portuguesa. They hadn’t conceded at home in over 630 minutes. The fact that the strike was an increasingly rare moment of football romance—Richard Blanco scoring his 200th goal in the Venezuelan Primera Division at the age of 42—did not lessen the blow. They could, however, take hope from the fact they had kept 10 clean sheets in their last 20 home games and had not lost over 90 minutes at home to Tachira since 2005.

The script writers had numerous narratives laid out before their eyes, and VAR would be present as the pantomime villain. All that was left was for Los Demonios Rojos, the Caracas barra, to put on a show in the stands. And they did not disappoint.

What is known of Venezuelan fan culture outside of its borders is few and far between. The barra—like ultras, for European readers—of Caracas have friendly relations with some other barras across South America, such as Internacional of Brazil and America de Cali of Colombia, and Tachira with Emelec of Ecuador and Colo-Colo of Chile. Yet its fledgling scene, burgeoning almost, is a cacophony of sound and kaleidoscope of colour that demands attention further afield.

For this latest edition of the Clasico Moderno, a few diehard Caracas fans had been camping out at El Olímpico for several days leading into the match. Why? To protect the stadium from the many Tachira fans to have migrated across the country to the capital or, as one of the club’s most popular sports teams, were simply born there. Whether it’s to protect the stadium walls from rival graffiti or stickers, or to ensure their flags and trapos are not stolen, such vigilante patrols have become a staple feature of this fixture.

This is now my fourth consecutive season of watching football at El Olímpico. I’ve seen Yeferson Soteldo score a panenka against would-be World Cup Champion Dibu Martinez, watched a kid scale the perimeter fence to mob Lionel Messi, spoken to travelling Uruguayan ultras from Nacional, and met with Brazilian barra who had flown thousands of miles on circuitous routes to watch their beloved Atletico Mineiro in a Copa Libertadores qualifier.

These were not things I expected to experience when I moved to Venezuela, but the most intriguing thing—a window straight into the soul of the country itself—would come with this Clasico. And it was everything and nothing to do with football.

There are certain routines to fan behaviour. Some are personal, like not cutting your hair between league titles, and others are communal, like the throwing of confetti as the team walk onto the pitch before the national anthem that precedes every game. Now, as a football fan raised in the stands of the top three tiers of England, I have no qualms in saying I was rather reticent to see the relevance of confetti at a football game, but if muscular men, heavily tattooed, and some with stab or bullet wounds, can throw confetti in the air as they shout out Gloria al Bravo Pueblo, so can I. And it’s the confetti, like never before, that caught my eye.

Firstly, there were untold amounts of it. My daughters were making snow angels in the shreds as they fell to the floor, pieces getting caught in people’s hair and clothes. Secondly, it was far more homogeneous than usual.

“Regularly, it is through donations,” barra member Chino1 told me of how they source the paper used. “Businesses with paper already shredded to dispose of give it to us for our various carnival activities in the stands, and, likewise, fans and friends of the barra bring old newspapers and recycled paper to the stadium each Thursday before a game to cut it up into papel picado.

But there was little of the stained yellow of periodicos or visible fragmented biro scribbles among the snowballs of paper being launched at me by my kids. I picked up a handful to get my playful revenge and very clearly saw jigsawed scraps of the words, Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela.

I was holding mangled money. We were throwing around obliterated Bolivares, the country’s official currency, as if it were monopoly money. Hundreds; no, thousands; no, hundreds of thousands of Bolivares were raining down on us and on all of the fans sat in the sold-out mainstand from the barra members who had scaled the stadium roof to pour the confetti from the skies.

Venezuela, Venezuelan football, Caracas, barra, football ultras, football culture, bolivares, Caracas Futbol Club, Venezuelan Clasico, El Clasico Moderno, fan culture, supporters groups
Artwork by Shivani Khot

The shredded banknotes, Chino told me, were 2 Bolivares notes; “more than one hundred bags,” already “minced by machines,” as his poetry put it.

“The 2B note was introduced in 2008 during a currency reconversion,” Venezuelan Economics graduate Neliany Marcano explained to me. “However, by 2013, their real value had already plummeted significantly due to the prior years’ inflationary pressures.”

Since 2013, Venezuela has undergone two further monetary reconversions.

“The first occurred in 2018, with an exchange rate of 1 to 100,000, and the second took place in 2021, with an exchange rate of 1 to 1,000,000,” Marcano, who graduated from the very university whose stadium was hosting this Clasico, continued to explain.

Tickets for the game were $3. If I were to have paid with 2Bs notes, I would’ve needed 5.4 trillion individual notes. Yes, trillion. Were there enough notes among the hundred-plus bags to buy my ticket?

“Each bag was capable of holding more than 2000 bills and in 2013, the year of this particular design, I think the dollar was at 6.3Bs,” Chino, the barra member, told me. “So for that year each bag could be calculated at $333.33 [according to the official rate].”

In Venezuela, everyone’s capable of being an economist—or at least a very competent mental mathematician.

So the 200,000 notes blowing in the gentle breeze of a Sunday afternoon in Caracas wouldn’t have been enough for a single ticket in today’s value, but in 2013’s value that was over $30,000 falling to the ground among the 15,000 fans in attendance.

These particular notes, now worthless, have been out of circulation since 2018, but the barra’s remarkable reinvention of their use six years on was not the first artistic reimagination they’ve had.

Caracas fan and artist Rubby Cobain, more famously known as La Chama Que Pinta Billetes, has been using Bolivares banknotes as the canvases for her paintings since 2015. (No prizes for guessing what her nickname translates to).

“I started in 2015, in school,” Rubby told me over WhatsApp from her new home in Argentina. “The main reason was that bus fare got more expensive: it had cost 2Bs and rose to 5Bs. So I painted Francisco de Miranda [a Venezuelan independence hero] onto the 2Bs note as a zombie. I thought that was a punk and artistic response to the madness of the economy.”

When Rubby started posting her artistic creations on social media the response catapulted her into an—at first—uncomfortable limelight.

“I received a message by someone in government [telling me to stop]. I cannot remember now who it was, but it scared me a lot because I was 17 and I thought, ‘I can’t go to prison, I need to finish school!’”

Nine years on and she’s painted Lionel Messi on an Argentine peso, her beloved Caracas heroes on her still beloved Bolivares, and met Venezuela’s all-time leading scorer Salomon Rondon to give him a personalised design of him in the iconic shirt of his then-club River Plate.

The life of a 2Bs note proves to be a charmed one: three of them got you a dollar at the official rate just over ten years ago, but you’d need 13 on the black market; today they’re shredded and used as confetti or sold to collectors online for $2; or, if you were to commission Rubby to paint onto one, it’s setting you back at least $180.

The intrigue, the sheer ridiculousness of seeing this spectacle was impressive enough for me, but I had to ask Nacho1, another member of the barra, if there was any hidden meaning to the act. After all, I didn’t at first understand why Caracas fans would display Tachira flags in their own end until I asked and was told that to display your rivals’ flags— stolen, of course—was taunting, and ‘look, Jordan, they’re upside down’.

“We at La Barra have never done any event with any aim other than supporting Caracas; it is really our only motivation, there was no ulterior reason in using this material as confetti, it is to dispose of the material that is found or that someone donates to us.”

Keeping up with the whirlwind that is the Venezuelan economy can be disorientating. It’s only when you step out of the eye of the storm that the numbers hit you like hailstones. When I first moved to Venezuela in 2021, a one dollar chocolate bar would cost 5Bs, more or less; now it’s around 36Bs.

“To provide a realistic assessment rather than just nominal figures, it’s crucial to acknowledge that many Venezuelans now rely on US dollars as a form of payment, with prices frequently denominated in dollars,” Marcano, the economist, told me. “The accumulated inflation from 2021 to today stands at 620%. This means that the Bolívar has lost 620% of its value relative to the dollar since you arrived.”

This year, Nacho is hoping to follow Caracas across borders. He has the intention of attending at least one of their Copa Libertadores group stage away games. The commitment of diehard football fans is globally admirable, but I reserve another level for Venezuelans. Despite the dollarisation of the country, which has done much to remove the evil of black-market exchange rates, the economy continues to plague the population.

“Looking ahead,” Marcano concludes, “we notice significant changes in Venezuela’s situation. The US dollar has become the common currency in use, reflecting a profound change in the economic scene, something that was unimaginable back in 2013. Additionally, there’s a noticeable rise in economic inequality among different social groups, worsening the existing disparities. Sadly, the general quality of life for Venezuelans has declined significantly, with many struggling with daily challenges and hardships.”

All I spoke to, with the exception of Rubby, are still here—or, in Marcano’s case, have returned after a few years abroad. Yet, despite everything, Rubby, who is now a legal citizen of Argentina, hopes one day to come home.

“Caracas is the love of my life, nothing less: the city I grew up in and where I want to be buried as well. I dream every night of coming back to Caracas and having the best life. I’m sure it’s waiting for me.”

As is commonly the case with football, the best stories are off the pitch. The game finished 0-0.

[1. Note to readers these are not their real names; they spoke under pseudonyms.]
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".