Arturo Vidal is infamous for his booze, brawls, and boorish behavior, but Bayern Munich have another name for him: Winner.
The over-powering smell of roast chicken and beer must have hit him like a brick wall. But they don’t call him Guerrero the Warrior—for nothing. No matter what life throws at him, he always soldiers on. And so, without breaking stride, he enters the gym.
“Here he is!” a man in lederhosen triumphantly yells into a microphone, “Our Ar-tu-ro … ”
“Vi-dal!” some 450 Bayern fans scream, raising their glasses.
We’re in a tiny Bavarian town, northeast of Munich. One of Bayern’s 4,208 official supporters’ clubs is having its annual Christmas party. Today there is a guest of honor.
They’ve been asked not to leave their places when the Chilean strides into the room, but that doesn’t mean they remain seated. People stand up on ale benches to get a better look at Bayern’s midfield workhorse.
A Bayern club song starts up at earsplitting volume. On his way to the stage, Vidal shakes hands, slaps palms, and poses for photos. When he finally arrives at his seat, the man in lederhosen says, “Arturo, we’ve heard you’re a bit of a sweetie, so here’s something we hope you’ll like.” Whereupon two women present him with a large red-and-white cake. Vidal gets out his mobile and takes a photo of the calorie bomb.
The next day, in the calm of Bayern’s clubhouse, I will remark on what a surreal experience it is to see someone from the poorest part of Santiago de Chile at the center of a raucous Christmas party in the Bavarian hinterland. And how endearing but slightly unsettling it is to hear beer-drinking men who speak with an accent so thick that I struggle to follow their words address Vidal, the heavily tattooed warrior feared by every opponent, as a “sweetie.” Sipping espresso, the Chilean smiles and replies, “It was actually very nice, because the people were so respectful and friendly. It was great.”
Bayern Munich began sending players to supporters’ clubs during Christmas season more than 30 years ago. It’s amazing they keep up the tradition, considering how times have changed. There are so many supporters’ clubs these days that those within a reasonable driving distance of Munich have to apply. The lucky ones are chosen by lot. There is also much more brouhaha surrounding the game and its stars; the days are long gone when the players would visit some cozy clubhouse and sing carols with a few dozen fans. When the supporters’ club Mia San Mia Finsing learned it would welcome Vidal, the club asked to use the local gym to accommodate the 450 guests (twice the number of actual members), among them the mayor and a county executive.
When Bayern established the Christmas tradition, there were hardly any foreign players on the squad—and the few from abroad were Danish or Belgian. Now Bayern’s players hail from all corners of the globe, most of them are huge stars, and some come from backgrounds that cannot have prepared them for events like this.
Vidal, for instance, is accompanied only by a driver (his former youth football coach from Santiago) and a middle-aged mother figure who serves as his helper. There are no bodyguards. There are no press officers to make sure Vidal—who’s playing his sixth season in Germany but hasn’t yet mastered the language—isn’t misquoted by the Spanish-speaking fan club member who translates his words. You can understand why, many years ago, the Colombian striker Adolfo Valencia simply got up and walked out of one such bear pit of a Christmas party after barely half an hour. It must have done his head in.
After the cake and coffee and the presentation of some gifts (including a wooden chess set with the supporters’ club’s logo), there is a Q&A. A small boy squeals, “How do you like it at Bayern Munich?”
The Chilean replies in Spanish. The interpreter says, “I like it very much because this is the best club in the world.” It elicits the first of what will be many rounds of applause.
Another boy wants to know, “Who is your favorite football player?”
The interpreter tells the crowd: “My son, Alonso.” More applause.
A small girl raises her arm. She waits until the man with the microphone is near her. “Who is your biggest idol?”
Vidal says, “Mi madre,” and the fans cheer as if their team had just scored the winning goal.
Is this really Vidal, the fearsome hardman, the scary enforcer? The same man the Munich tabloid Iz called an “enfant terrible” in July 2015, when it was rumored he would leave Juventus for Bayern, openly wondering if a man whose reputation was damaged by “alcohol, lies, brawls, and vulgar behavior” was really suited to the German giants.
The article was published a few weeks after Vidal had totaled his Ferrari on the outskirts of Santiago while under the influence on his way back from a casino—you can understand why people in Munich were skeptical. Many also remembered the war of words between Vidal and Bayern in the summer of 2011. At the time, Bayern thought they had reached an agreement with the Chilean about signing him from Bayer Leverkusen. Then suddenly Vidal left for Turin. Bayern’s president, Uli Hoeneß, publicly accused the player of having “broken his word.” This was what stuck in people’s minds, even though Vidal explained that Leverkusen’s director of football, Rudi Völler, had vetoed the transfer to another German club.
But that was then, and this is now. Now everybody at Bayern seems to have taken to the Chilean despite his terrifying exterior, the mohawk and the scowl and the tattoos. When I met him the day after the Christmas party, his middle-aged helper did the interpreting.
My last question concerned Vidal’s future, the sort of thing proper football journalists are supposed to ask: “Don’t you think your physical and passionate style would be perfectly suited to Premier League football?” I wait for the woman to translate for me, but she just glares in mock anger. Finally, she says, “I’m not going to ask him this because I will never let him leave this club.”
The Mia San Mia Finsing supporters’ club members are not letting him leave, either. After the cake and the gifts and the questions, Vidal signs autographs. He signs shirts, posters, and baby bodysuits (with the babies inside). Twice I have to go outside to get fresh air. Vidal, meanwhile, scribbles his name and talks to fan after fan with the patience of a Buddhist monk (and the stamina of an athlete in midseason form).
And then, at last, the Vidal we all know and admire (or fear, if he’s not playing for your team) emerges. The president of the supporters’ club asks him if he would mind demonstrating his PlayStation skills by taking on a fan—“Not an entire game, just five minutes or so.”
The fan in question turns out to be in his early teens. He picks Bayern Munich as his team. Vidal chooses Chilean giants Colo-Colo. The two settle down in chairs in front of a large screen. Within seconds, a crowd forms around them to have a closer look at the action.
Vidal is good, but the boy seems to have more experience—and no nerves. He quickly takes the lead when a player in red wrestles the ball across the line. The goal scorer for Bayern Munich is: Ar-tu-ro Vi-dal! Laughter echoes around the gym. Some fans start up a Bayern song, as if they were watching a real match.
But Vidal—the real one, not the digital version—has stopped smiling. His eyes are on the screen. Which suddenly goes black.
“The five minutes are up,” the supporters’ club president announces. “Thank you very much, Arturo, for having a bit of a laugh with us.” Hushed words are exchanged on the stage. The president raises his arms. “Arturo wants to keep playing. The warrior hates losing!”
The screen comes back to life. Now Colo- Colo are aggressive. The boy senses he’s in trouble and tries to pass the ball around at the back. It’s a mistake. He’s robbed in possession, and deep into the second half, the Chileans equalize. Vidal clenches a fist in celebration.
Vidal was 12 when he joined the Santiago club. This was the moment he realized he could become a professional football player. Which also meant his talent gave his family a chance to escape a life of poverty. It must have put enormous pressure on the boy, whose ne’er-do-well father had been thrown out by his mother years earlier. But Vidal says he loved the game too much to feel any pressure.
It seems fair to suggest that Vidal knew he had made it—and secured a future for his family—only when he went to the promised land, Europe. In 2007, at age 22, he left Colo- Colo and signed for Bayer Leverkusen. Hard to believe, but he didn’t have a single tattoo at that time. Is it too much to presume that he needed some sort of armor to survive so far from home in a foreign country? A second skin? War paint?
All these years later, he’s almost an honorary Bavarian: When he wins a penalty against the young Bayern fan, there are loud cheers all around—and then groans of disappointment when the Chilean presses the wrong button on the controller and fluffs his penalty. Colo-Colo are in command now, but time is running out.
With seconds left on the clock, the digital Colo-Colo player runs into Bayern’s box. The virtual Manuel Neuer leaves his line. Although he’s shooting from a tight angle, the striker somehow finds an opening and puts the ball past Neuer and into the net: 2-1.
Vidal celebrates with fist pumps. The boy hangs his head. The crowd applauds. The man next to me shakes his head, laughing, then says to nobody in particular: “That guy’s a winner.”
This article first appeared in issue 10 of Eight by Eight. Please consider subscribing, and supporting our independent football magazine.