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The Hard Way

Thick fog crawls around the stadium. A fog that dampens clothes, that tastes of the brine it's born in from the sea. One player after another walks through it, alone, towards the penalty spot. The fate of a trophy rests on the end of each walk. One of them will miss and let it slip away.


For the last three days, fans of Ecuador's LDU Quito and Brazil's Fortaleza have filled Punta del Este, Uruguay for the Copa Sudamericana final. Known as the Monte Carlo of South America, Punta's towers of plush apartments gleam in the sun, rising up behind the miles of perfect sand beaches. Yachts bob gently in the serenity of the marina. It's a beautiful place to have a final.

At the town's most famous landmark – the gently curling fingers of a giant hand coming up out of the sand – a giant replica of the Copa Sudamericana trophy has been placed on what would be the palm. Lines of fans snake back along the beach to take selfies with it, almost all in their replica shirts, loudly singing their club's songs. But there's no trouble, no edge. Both are mixing happily, both enjoying the holiday. Police are there but they're chatting and smiling. Cars drive past groups of fans and beep their horns, eliciting joyful shouts in response.

I'm watching them the night before the game when I hear noise up a street. Following the sound, I find a crowd of Quito fans has gathered at the team hotel as the players board the bus to their final training session ahead of the biggest game of this, or many other, seasons. The drums beat, the fans sing, maracas wave. The street is completely blocked off. There's no room for thinking this is only South America's secondary trophy.

The next morning the centre of Punta is again filled with fans everywhere. The fingers are still busy, other people meander round the marina. All the restaurants are full of shirted supporters singing. The blue and red of Fortaleza is everywhere and the Ecuadoreans are clearly outnumbered, but they're still there.

And then something strange happens. Fog appears and sweeps over the entire centre, rolled in from the sea and swallowing the town. The tops of buildings and the ends of streets are gone. The sunny beach is lost to mist and gloom.

I take it as a sign to move up towards the ground, and I have barely even left the centre when I emerge from the fog again.

The ground is in the northern reaches of the town and I get there a few hours before kick off. The streets around the ground are already packed. Plastic horns blare, fans sing, one Brazilian even pulls out a ring and drops to one knee in front of his girlfriend.

It is all very informal compared to a UEFA final and the locals have found a payday. Some are firing meat on barbecues, some sell horns, one lady is selling beer from a cool box in the front of her old Nissan.

After a couple of hours the empty cans have piled up and it's time to go in. Heavily armoured police block the way, letting people through in waves. We pass through multiple body searches and ticket checks. Finally I'm inside, where I have to choose any spot on concrete bleachers in amongst some Quito fans, firmly behind cage barriers. At each end, both sets of ultras are booming out songs, banging drums, waving banners.

We go through the typical pageantry of a final and then the match begins. It's hard to know who to support as both feel like underdogs in their own way. One an overlooked team in South America's - even the world's - greatest footballing nation, the other a giant but only relative to the modest competition within its own overlooked country. I side with Quito, partly because they're around me and partly because Brazil has enough glory.

It's not a great game. The pitch has been watered so much the ball is flicking up spray, which probably doesn't help. I notice a small child with the family next to me has a crumpled piece of paper on which he's drawn a Fortaleza sign and I start to waver in my choice of team. Early in the second half he is cheering. Quito miss a good chance and Fortaleza go right down the other end. A cross comes in low and it's hit inside the near post, the keeper missing what should've been a routine save.

A few minutes later the same keeper misses the ball completely and nearly concedes another. He makes a dramatic show of shielding his eyes from the lowering sun, ensuring everyone knows he's got a fine excuse. A cap is soon produced for him. The Fortaleza fans are bouncing, feeling the trophy get closer and closer.

But Quito's winger, brought on as a sub, is then found near the touchline. He barges a defender to the ground, keeping the ball in play, then looks up. He scurries onwards, moving in field towards the box. Still going, he enters the area and finds his moment. He curls the ball into the far corner. There's a moment of hesitation before the release, and then an explosion in the stands. Down this end, only the lone child sits quietly with his sign.

As we move into extra time, the fog reaches this part of the city. Light at first, then getting thicker and thicker, peering round the floodlights and slithering greedily down the stands. It's heavy, the air itself now wet. There are no more goals and the ref blows for penalties.

Quito miss early, but their keeper – no longer the fool as he looked earlier – later saves to even it up. In sudden death the fans can barely move. Player after player, trudging alone over the grass before screaming relief when they score. In the end, it's a Fortaleza player who has to make that awful walk through the mist, back to his teammates after sealing their defeat with a miss. The Quito players sprint away in celebration, leaping and running around the pitch. In the stands, heads, limbs and bodies bounce up and down the bleachers. Fans leap to the barriers, swinging their shirts and screaming in delight.

After watching the lap of honour, I leave the Ecuadoreans to their party and walk away into the fog, the victory songs fading away behind me.

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