Paul Oberjuerge header image 2

Futbol Diaries, Part 1: Stage Set for Mexico Road Trip

June 8th, 2017 · No Comments · Football, Landon Donovan, soccer, World Cup

The United States and Mexico are set to resume the greatest rivalry in North American soccer, four days hence, in a 2018 World Cup qualifying match to be played in Mexico’s Estadio Azteca.

And the thought of it prompted memories of the 1,800-mile road trip two of us took from Tijuana, Mexico, to Mexico City to cover the 2005 qualifying match, ahead of the 2006 World Cup.

Twelve years ago.

I have decided to dig up the dispatches from that semi-crazy road trip and post them on this blog.

I probably will not put up seven consecutive days of the travel and match coverage that came out of the trip, given the big events going on at this time of year.

But each of the items of the series will open with the words “Futbol Diaries”, followed by the number (2, 3, 4 …) of the installment.

This was the second big road trip I chronicled in 2005, following the cross-country Super Bowl that year in Jacksonville, Fla. (I suppose I was just up for road trips, that year.)

My co-pilot and translator for the Mexico trip was Damian Secore, a former colleague and perennial football aficionado.

We perhaps should have been more nervous about the trip than we were, given that neither of us had driven any distance in the country or had any clear sense of the standard of the hotels we hoped to reach each day.

We were equally innocent of the condition of the roads we planned to follow or what sort of dangers two Americans might encounter on the road from our naivete.

More than a few people said: “Are you crazy?”

Herewith, the set-up piece which appeared on March 22, 2005, outlining our plan for driving a rental car to the big game, pitting arch-rivals that each had won their first match in the final round of 2006 qualifying.

What most of us don’t know about Mexico and Mexicans … would fill volumes. Talking facts here, not impressions. Not cliches.

Many of us never have driven any distance through the country that lies only 100 miles south of the Inland Empire.

We are largely ignorant of Mexico’s long history. Its colorful culture. Its diverse geography.

And we barely realize just how huge the sport of futbol — soccer, to us Yanquis — is to Mexico and Mexicans.

Today, we begin a driving tour that takes us from Tijuana to Mexico City — more than 1,800 miles through desert, coastal plain, jungle and mountains.

The first day in the car will take us from Tijuana to Hermosilla, the second to Culiacan, the third to San Blas, the fourth to Guadalajara, the fifth to the capital, on the eve of  the kickoff.

We arrive, God (and the autopista) willing, in time to witness the biggest international sports event in Mexico this year — the United States vs. Mexico in a World Cup qualifying match Sunday at Estadio Azteca.

We hope to gain, en route, a better sense of Mexico, its favorite sport, and its feelings about the team and country it apparently loves to hate — El Norte.

“It will be a war down there,” said Mexico native Antonio Cue, president and co-owner of Major League Soccer club Chivas USA, referring to the U.S.-Mexico match.

“If there’s a team we don’t want to lose to, it’s the U.S.”

The last meeting between the teams that held as much significance came during the 2002 World Cup, when the U.S. defeated Mexico 2-0 to advance to the quarterfinals of the globe’s most popular sports event.

“This is the most important sport in Mexico and we really want to get payback from the World Cup,” Cue said. “That one really hurt, going out of the World Cup, and having the U.S. do it.”

“My uncle in Michoacan told me, before that game, he was planning a big party for after they won,” said Luis Bueno, a correspondent for

“When they lost, he said people were stunned. They were just walking around the streets in the middle of the night, completely stunned.”

Mexico has been slow to acknowledge the U.S. has closed what once was a yawning soccer gap between the nations.

“A loss to the U.S. is still unacceptable,” Bueno said. “Mexican fans will not admit the U.S. is at their level.”

That sentiment flies in the face of recent results. The rivalry has tilted toward the Yanks in recent years; the Americans have won three of the past four meetings; the fourth was a scoreless draw.

Mexico hasn’t scored against the Americans in 434 minutes — nearly five matches.

“The gap is closing,” Cue said, “but I think we still have a little advantage. I think the team is strongest right now, physically and mentally.”

He predicts a 2-1 Mexico victory.

Said Bueno: “The Mexicans always have their excuses. They explain everything away. It’s the coach’s fault, or the referee’s, or the federation’s.”

Mexico is a huge country, three times the size of Texas. Its population is 103 million. And nearly all of them are soccer fans.

Life expectancy in Mexico is 73, compared to 77 in the U.S.

Average income in 2003 was $9,000 per person, compared to $37,800 in the U.S., according to

And Mexico remains a Third World country; the U.S. remains the leading First World country, taking in 77 percent of Mexico’s exports — and millions and millions of its economic refugees.

Our travels will take us just south of the California and Arizona borders, through the largely empty Sonoran desert, down the glittering Pacific coast and through the tourist-choked beach resort of Mazatlan, up into the Sierra Occidental and on to the altiplano where most Mexicans live.

We end up in the capital, Mexico City, 20 million people living 7,300 feet above sea level, and at the cathedral of Mexican soccer — Azteca Stadium, capacity 114,600.

“It will be 101 percent full,” Cue predicted. “And the TV ratings (in Mexico) will be incredible.”

Ratings won’t be nearly as large in the United States, another source of annoyance for Mexico fans; most Americans can’t be bothered to notice they and Mexico are neck-and-neck for North American soccer supremacy.

American players thrive on Mexico’s passion, said U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan, the Redlands native.

“Personally, that someone is too into something or too worried about something, it’s almost a human instinct for you to want them to fail, because it’s too important to them,” Donovan said.

“I see how intense they are about it, and how much they make of every little thing.”

We will be living “every little thing” the next six days. From Mexicali to Tepic to Morelia. Studying the geography, gauging the drivers, dealing with perhaps corrupt police, communicating as best we can with the people, eating at roadside stands (but not drinking the water), our antennae up for signs of anti-Americanism as the big game approaches.

Check back with you, manana.



0 responses so far ↓

  • There are no comments yet...Kick things off by filling out the form below.

Leave a Comment