More Than A Game: Cerro Porteno vs Olimpia

South American derbies are soaked in flares, fights and match-fixing. For the December 2006 issue, FourFourTwo sent Daniel Neilson to Paraguay's fiercest derby - Cerro Porteno vs Olimpia

We hear the Cerro Porteño barra brava before we can see them. Echoing down the narrow streets of Paraguay’s capital Asuncion is the racket of thumping drums, firecrackers exploding, trumpet blasts, whistles and chants. Concerned kiosk owners around the ground hurriedly pull down the shutters in anticipation of the onslaught. 

The police hear them, too. Out of nowhere an old US-style school bus halts outside the stadium to let 40 or 50 armed officers out. Heavily protected riot police stand guard while a couple of army troops with machine guns loiter in the shadows. A huge armoured truck, loaded with three water cannon, trundles round the corner. 

Then, in the distance, a swathe of red and blue bounces towards the Defensores del Chaco stadium for the biggest game of the year. Hundreds of fans arrive outside the entrance to the north stand, jumping to the beat of homemade drums and screaming out songs. Those already inside peer over the top of the terrace to watch the spectacle; some throw poorly-aimed missiles in the general direction of the police. There is no doubting the barra brava have arrived, and no mystery why they are nicknamed El Ciclon: the cyclone.

Cerro Porteno fans show their support for El Ciclon

Police confiscate belts, bottles and anything mildly solid-looking. The last time Cerro Porteño played Olimpia it descended into a riot

The party subsides slightly as edgy police thoroughly frisk the supporters waiting patiently to enter the ground. They confiscate belts, bottles and anything mildly solid-looking. The last time Cerro Porteño played Olimpia it descended into a riot; this time the police are taking no chances. 

Then the beep of a horn disrupts the lull, fans break away from the queue and pandemonium ensues again: the Cerro team bus has arrived. As players hang out of the windows waving red and blue striped flags, a couple of cocky fans clamber up the side of the coach, grabbing at their heroes. The music sparks up again and when the frenzied crowd chant “We are Cerro, we are Cerro,” the players join in. 

At the south end of the ground a similar performance is being staged, only in Olimpia’s black and white colours. It is two hours before the 248th meeting of Paraguay’s two most popular teams, Cerro Porteño and Olimpia Asuncion, kicks off. Each side has won 86 times. There is a lot to play for and the atmosphere is thrilling.

Derby or party?

This is the biggest party in Paraguayan football, between two teams supported by at least 90% of the public

- Olimpia president Manuel Nogues

“This is the biggest party in Paraguayan football,” Olimpia’s recently appointed president Dr Manuel Nogues tells FourFourTwo a couple of days before the game. “I would estimate these two teams are supported by at least 90% of the Paraguayan public and there is a long, passionate and strong rivalry between these two teams.” 

Emerging from opposite ends of Asuncion’s geography and economy, bourgeois Olimpia and ‘club of the people’ Cerro have been fierce foes for 94 years. It is a rivalry that is deeply embedded in both the history of their clubs and the country they share. 

“Olimpia, very generally, are identified with the higher classes,” continues Dr Nogues in his downtown office. “But I think most of the rivalry is down to envy from the other teams, especially Cerro, because we are the only ones to have had international success.”

It’s a statement designed specifically to infuriate their opponents, because Olimpia certainly boast the biggest trophy room. In pride of place are three continental Copa Libertadores, the Copa InterAmericana and the Intercontinental Cup. They have also won the domestic league 38 times to Cerro’s 27. And much to the chagrin of Cerristas, and the unabated joy of Olimpistas, Cerro have never won an international competition.

Olimpia have won more trophies, and are happy to talk about it

However, with Olimpia in poor form of late, it is last year’s league winners who go into the derby as favourites. Like most Latin American countries, the Paraguayan football year is split up into the opening (apertura) and closing (clausura) tournaments; the winner of the first plays the winner of the second to determine the championship winner. In 2005 Cerro won both, but finished second to Libertad in the 2006 apertura. With only one point in it at the top of the table and a Copa Libertadores place to play for, both sides are desperate for a good result – and there’s nothing sweeter than beating your biggest rivals.

Big news

With all great rivalries, the game is fought as much in the stands as on the pitch as both tribes aim to score points in an imaginary league based on fanaticism. Paraguay’s biggest game is their opportunity to outwit, outshine, and out-sing each other. As a result, the Asuncion superclasico is an extravagant show of posturing and bravado. 

For the week before the game newspapers sold on Asuncion’s street corners are dominated by the event. “It will be a titanic fight,” promises one tabloid. “It’s an abuse!” screams another in reference to the large hike in entrance price. A less salubrious organ features a model in slinky swimwear – because, she declares, “Every time I wear my lucky little Cerro bikini, they win”.

Only the death of Paraguay’s former dictator Alfredo Stroessner, whose 35-year rule was more iron fist than velvet glove, keeps football on the back page – for a day. It is, in short, big news here... if not anywhere else. 

Alfredo Stroessner led an army coup in 1954 - and stayed in charge for 35 years

Few people have anything to say about this landlocked country, and when they do it is overwhelmingly negative. The American journalist and satirist PJ O’Rourke said Paraguay “is nowhere and famous for nothing”. 

A locus of money-laundering, smuggling, arms and illegal narcotics trafficking, and fundraising for extremist organizations

- The CIA on Paraguay's border with Brazil and Argentina

The CIA is even less complimentary, describing the triple border it shares with Argentina and Brazil, near the stunning Iguazu waterfalls, as “a locus of money-laundering, smuggling, arms and illegal narcotics trafficking, and fundraising for extremist organizations”. It is even said the US considered bombing the area after 9/11 because of the proliferation of Al Qaeda terrorists thought to be living there. Nearly everyone advises against going to Hannibal Lecter’s adopted neighbourhood. 

Even in the nicer parts of Paraguay, the economy has what might be termed an informal sector. The streets of Asuncion are filled with hawkers selling dodgy DVDs, contraband electronics, ‘Tag’ and ‘Rolex’ watches, antiques and fake Cerro and Olimpia tops, while elderly native Guarani women sit quietly on the pavement with their traditional handicrafts.

Some great players have come out of Paraguay. There are only six million people living here, yet we're the third-best football nation in South America

- Cerro fan Carlos Sarubbi

But contrary to popular belief, Asuncion is a neat, pretty colonial city, and relatively safe by Latin American standards. Its residents are unerringly polite and friendly, and many will happily invite a stranger to dinner if conversation about the superclasico is on the menu.

Over pizza and beer, Cerro fan Carlos Sarubbi offers some explanations as to why Paraguay’s football reputation is disproportionate to its country’s humble stature. “Some great players have come out of Paraguay. There are only six million people living here, yet we are the third-best football nation in South America.” 

NEXT: "The champion of the millennium"