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Futbol Diaries, Part 7: Mexico Sends a Message

June 16th, 2017 · No Comments · Football, Road trip, soccer, World Cup

After the road trip came the game, the reason former colleague Damian Secore and I drove a rented Chevrolet Chevy to the Mexican capital for a 2006 World Cup qualifying match.

Anyone who is a soccer fan should see a game in Azteca Stadium, if they get the chance. I have been there three times, and each time it impressed.

The passion in the stadium is intense, and the stadium is special both for its enormous capacity (100,000-plus) as well as its very vertical layout, which seems to put people in the top deck nearly over the field of play.

In the past, when nearly all of Mexico’s players competed in the local league, the stadium also conferred an advantage for the home team, which usually was better prepared than opponents to play at 7,300 feet above sea level.

Both sides eventually qualified for the 2006 World Cup, so we cannot say the result, back in 2005, was decisive, but the event was memorable, again.

A comment piece, out of the match:

MEXICO CITY — Manuel Vilchez was giddy. And not just because he was holding 13 beer cups stacked, one inside the next.

“My girlfriend drank at least five of them,” he said, and she nodded a beaming assent.

Vilchez was one of 110,000 hap-hap-happy futbol aficionados who streamed out of Estadio Azteca savoring a 2-1 victory over the feared and loathed Yanqis de los Estados Unidos in a 2006 World Cup qualifier Sunday.

“This means a lot,” he said in polished English. “And it’s not just about football.

“I have a brother who is living in Denver, so I know what it’s like to live in America without papers and how hard it is. This triumph over the Americans means a lot.”

Given: Mexico loves soccer; Americans barely acknowledge it.

But a significant subplot to these soccer matchups is gut-level Mexican antipathy toward its northern neighbor.

Many Mexicans seem convinced their emigre countrymen are persecuted and maltreated by Americans and their government — even though many of those who have gone north earn wages far above what they could make here, and even though the average expatriated Mexican sends home $1,000, annually, helping prop up a weak economy.

Mexicans feel as if they can strike back at the U.S. by defeating it in the world’s game. Some of them get carried away.

Before Sunday’s match, Mexican midfielder Hector Altimirano dedicated the game to Mexicans living in the U.S.

Jonathan Clark, a correspondent for The Herald, the English-language edition of Mexico City newspaper El Universal, said: “American-bashing is really popular here right now. It’s like terrorism in the U.S. — everybody agrees on it. Every political candidate, all the media, because it’s an easy issue.”

The political undertow was the least attractive aspect of the match, which otherwise was an Easter Day fiesta for Mexico.

Mexico clutches to the idea that it is the king of North American soccer, even though it had won only one of of its previous eight confrontations with the Yanks.

A huge sign on the south side of Azteca read: “El Gigante No Ha Muerto: — the giant is not dead. The giant being Mexican soccer.

The day began with the U.S. team and a record American media contingent traveling to Azteca in three buses, escorted by nearly 30 police.

The “Capitalinos” seemed to understand with the caravan was about; they waved Mexican flags at the entourage and shouted mostly good-natured warnings.

At the cavernous stadium, almost as tall as it is wide, most fans wore the green, red and white of the home side’s flag. They chanted patriotic slogans before and during the game.

Predictably, they jeered and whistled throughout the U.S. anthem. Also predictably, they thought the referee was beyond redemption.

Overall, they were “not as rambunctious as I thought they would be,” U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan said. “They were pretty mellow.”

The good feelings may have been a result of the first 45 minutes, when the Americans were awful and Mexico scored twice. Fans erupted after each goal and seemed on the edge of getting the humiliation of the Americans they yearned for. Four-nil might have hit the spot.

Mexico soccer stresses individual skills; it feels a bit like the bullring, with matador flair prized. It is no coincidence Mexican fans shout “Ole!” when their players string together passes.

But the stadium got quiet when Eddie Lewis scored for the visitors in the 59th minute. We almost could feel 100 million Mexicans getting nervous.

Mexico must win, in Azteca. It is the law, almost. A draw would be almost as bad as a defeat.

One Mexican journalist said: “It’s always bad for us to get a 2-0 lead because we think it is over and we relax and look what happens.”

The U.S. surge stalled, Mexico improved its record on home soil, versus the U.S., to 22-0-1 and the soccer world had returned to its proper axis.

“For us, it’s another game against a big rival,” said Carlos Bocanegra, the U.S. defender. “For them it’s life and death.”

The game, and the week before it, proved illuminating. It seemed to the two of us who drove nearly 1,800 miles from Tijuana to get here — we fly back — that Mexico and Mexicans usually are friendly and fair. Patriotic, like Americans. Proud of their country.

Yes, they get a little nutty about soccer. Perhaps, the U.S. can let them slide there; the game cuts too close to the bone in Mexico to let the interlopers move in without a fight.

From Tijuana to Tampico, it was a good day, Sunday. A very good day.



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