The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Another reason to visit Cancun

Posted by steigs on December 10, 2007

The championship of Ameria’s most popular soccer league was decided last night.  If you only speak English, though, you probably haven’t heard about it.  (One exception is the LA-based Sideline Views blog.)  The league, you see, is that of Mexico.

I only caught part of Atlante’s 2-1 second leg triumph over Pumas.  It was a decent game, given the high stakes involved.  What was more remarkable was the location — Cancun!  Tired of being one of the unfashionable of Mexico City’s many teams, Atlante up and moved to Cancun over the summer, looking to the resort’s workers as a fanbase.  It was a shift more akin to what American “franchises” do than is the usual practice in international soccer.  And that’s not the only thing that seems kind of familiar about the Mexican soccer league.  They have play-offs to decide their championship too, not the classic single table regular season approach seen through most of the world.  A Eurosnob fan would probably be inclined to assume that it’s another sign of Uncle Sam’s pernicious influence south of the border.

Whatever.  We DC United fans are now day-dreaming about a match-up with Atlante in one of next year’s continental tourneys.  It makes more a much appealing away game road-trip than, say, Columbus or Houston.

While we shiver and plot, a little more about the Mexican soccer league, involving a 2005 visit from Pumas (and Hugo Sanchez) and why some Mexicans root for “the Goats.”

Washington – April 2005

The most popular soccer league in America is not, I must confess, the MLS. It’s not the glamourous English Premiership either. It is “La Primera Division del Futbol Mexicano,” aka the Mexican league. The Mexican league has potent television ratings in the parts of the country with substantial Mexican-American and Mexican immigrant populations, an ever-increasing proportion of the nation. It also has a following among Central American immigrants, used to watching the teams of their much larger neighbors. In Los Angeles, for example, the Mexican league has been known to beat the NFL in television ratings, the kind of pull the MLS dreams of achieving in the dim and distant future. The Spanish language audience for soccer in America is quite large – the Spanish language television rights for the World Cup in the US are more expensive than the English language rights.

If you get your sports news from English-language sources, however, you have no idea about this. If MLS is an afterthought for much of the mainstream sporting press, the Mexican league is even less than that, thanks to the language barrier. The scores of Mexican games are unreported and championships unnoticed, even in soccer-friendly places like the Washington Post or New York Times. You would never realize the draw it has for many Americans, not just the recent immigrants you would expect, but those who have been here for years. Perhaps baseball’s Negro leagues were once like this, a popular underground ethnic endeavor with little mainstream awareness. Or maybe the early days of NASCAR are a relevant comparison, with a strong regional following and no attention paid beyond that.

If your city has a noticeable Latino population you can probably watch soccer most frequently by following the Mexican league on Univision and Telemundo etc. (Well, unless you fork out for extra sports tiers on digital cable, like I do.) If you are not watching the Spanish language channels, though, you get little help figuring out what is going on in Mexican soccer. When the mainstream sports media does actually notice foreign soccer leagues, it is usually those of Europe, especially England. Even English language soccer websites pay more mind to South American soccer than the game in Mexico. The assumption is that anyone who wants to follow the Mexican league will speak Spanish and turn to other sources. American English-speaking soccer fans are presumed – perhaps accurately – to want news of the “best” leagues, those in Europe or perhaps Brazil or Argentina.

Still, Mexican soccer is not just a presence on our television screens. The Mexican league’s large following in the US, and the relative wealth of these fans compared to those back home, means Mexican teams make it a regular habit to play exhibition games, even whole pre-season tourneys, in the US. The top Mexican teams can sell out a game at the Rose Bowl or in Texas in a heartbeat.

As a result, I can watch a Mexican team play without even leaving Washington, let alone the country. In this case the team is Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM), known as Pumas. They are in town to play my DC United in the CONCACAF Champions Cup, our region’s rather half-assed imitation of the Champions League and Copa Libertadores. It is a tourney often dominated by Mexican teams, although Costa Rican and MLS teams can sometimes win it. (DC United, in fact, won the tourney in 1998.) The game is the first leg of the semi-finals, with the second to be played in Mexico City.

Pumas are the reigning champions of the Mexican league. Like some South American leagues, the Mexican league went to a split season in the mid-1990s, with one competition in the first part of the year, a summer break, and then a separate second competition in the fall. Unlike the traditional English “regular season is all” approach, both seasons end in a series of play-offs. Much like in our NFL – which may have been an influence – these playoffs involve multiple elimination rounds, featuring eight or ten teams initially, with two game “home and away” match-ups to determine the advancing team. I am sure that, like our play-offs, this leads to better television ratings.

Pumas won both the “Apertura” and the “Clausura” in 2004, an impressive and rare feat of dominance. (Imagine if the NFL played both a spring and fall schedule, complete with playoffs. How often would the same team win both?) And yet the biggest star on Pumas is the team’s coach Hugo Sanchez, the greatest player Mexico has yet produced. A forward, he starred with Real Madrid for several years in the 1980s, often leading La Liga in scoring. As a coach, he is a cocky loudmouth, stalking the sidelines in jeans and a sportcoat, prone to press statements making clear he believes he should be coaching Mexico’s national team. (Supposedly he failed to get the job the last time it was open in part because he believed he should not need to interview for it, that it should be simply handed to him.)  [He eventually got the job after the 2006 World Cup.]

As with the Champions League, these Champions Cup games are played in the middle of the week so as to fit in between the regular weekend league games. DC United is at a disadvantage having only just started a new season a few weeks earlier, while Pumas are well into their latest season. That said, Pumas are currently only in the middle of the table in the eighteen team Mexican league and, absent a playoff run, look likely to relinquish their double-crown. The evening is crisp yet comfortable with the initial burst of spring. Down in the Tidal Basin the cherry blossoms are enjoying their all too brief blooming.

M. is stuck working late so I head to RFK on my own. A circus is performing at the Armory next to the stadium, giving the area a festive and diverse air. For once, I need to buy my ticket on game day – this was not a part of our usual set of season tickets. Alas, the line for walk-up ticket sales is huge – Latino fans are known for their tendency to buy tickets on the day of the game, rather than in advance. The authorities seem to have underestimated the appeal of Pumas and only belatedly decide to open the upper bowl of the stadium, making more tickets available.

As a result, I finally get to my seat – an expensive one near midfield – about 10 minutes into the game, grumpy because there was no time to pick up a beer from a concession stand on the way. Since the previous season, the Expos have moved to Washington (becoming the Nationals in the process) and joined DC United at RFK. The adjustments to make such an awkward co-tenancy feasible are obvious, if not quite as awful as I had feared beforehand. The seats behind one goal, home to the raucous La Norte fan club, are gone. The soccer field’s alignment has been tilted a few degrees to the side and the shadow of the baseball diamond is discernible even with grass covering the whole infield. (At a game a few weeks later Clint Dempsey of the New England Revolution cheekily celebrates a goal by sprinting over to home plate and pretending to hit a home run.)

The crowd tonight fills RFK’s lower bowl, with people beginning to trickle into the upper reaches of the stadium now that they have been opened. It looks to be 50-50 in loyalties, although the Pumas fans prove to be louder. A multi-generational family of Pumas fans are sitting directly in front of me. Mom is always hugging the little boy while grandma keeps laughing and making low comments in Spanish. Meanwhile, the father, who is outfitted in a Pumas jersey, Pumas baseball cap, and Pumas scarf, watches the game with quiet intensity.

I’m next to an older Guatemalan man who tells me, as we converse in fragments of Spanish and English, that he is cheering for DC United. Central Americans often resent the much larger Mexico, which can make for complicated rooting decisions, given their mixed, at best, feelings about the US. Beside him is a teenage couple with divided loyalties – she is in a DC United jersey, he in a Pumas jersey.

DC United are in their usual black uniforms. Pumas are wearing white jerseys, decorated with an abstract puma design in blue. The jersey has a most appropriate Aztec vibe to it, like it is taken from the hieroglyphic on an ancient temple. I like it. It feels Mexican.

Mexican flags are spread through the crowd, as if each section has been issued one. I see a host of green Mexican national team jerseys as well as a sprinkling of those for various Central American nations. There is also, inevitably, a young Latino guy in the green and white hoops of Celtic. They are a team for Catholic immigrants, I suppose…

RFK is noisier than usual, an irregular symphony of horns, drums, and chants. United is already up 1-0, the goal scored before I got to my seat. The Guatemalan man informs me that it was our attacking midfielder Christian Gomez who got the goal, off a cross from Jaime Moreno. Despite this, Pumas look the better team and the play is wide open, end to end. Pumas keep generating scoring chances and muffing them, while United look dangerous coming back on the counter-attack. The United defense looks decidedly shaky, with two of the three players on the back-line being young – the team had lost its best defender, Ryan Nelsen, to Blackburn of the English Premiership in the off-season.

The Pumas team is predominantly Mexican with a couple of South Americans mixed in, much the same way United’s line-up is largely American with a Bolivian (Jaime Moreno) and an Argentine (Christian Gomez) to add flair. The Mexican league has drawn more and more South American talent in recent years as the Mexican economy has, on a relative basis, fared better than those further south. In fact, it may now offer the highest wages of any league in the Americas. Pumas plays with much more theatricality, players collapsing in heaps after fouls, or even near fouls, and the game grows increasingly fitful with pauses for free kicks.

Salvatore comes by pounding his giant drum, attempting to rouse fans to chant “D-C!” Much of the crowd responds to his beats with “Pu-Mas!” instead, rendering the cheers a loud mush. The rivalry between the fans has a friendly feel so far.

At half-time, I stroll the concourse, impressed with all the Pumas paraphernalia on display, feeling like a nerd in my suit, having rushed over from the office. I come across a mariachi band marching along the concourse. The turnout is all the more impressive given that Pumas, while a regular contender, are hardly the biggest name in the Mexican league. The two lodestars of the league are Club America and Chivas and they are the biggest drawing cards here in the US. While other teams – Monterey, Cruz Azul, Necaxa – often win titles, it is these two that have the sharpest identities.

Club America, of Mexico City, is the glamour team with deep pockets, always in the news, always signing stars – a Yankees or Cowboys equivalent, perhaps. Since the Mexican league formed in the 1940s, they have picked up nine championships. Club America are associated with Mexico’s elite, and upward climbers who aspire to join them. Chivas, of Guadalajara, take a different approach, priding themselves on only fielding Mexican players, appealing to the deep well of nationalism among Mexicans. No high-priced Argentine or Colombian imports for Chivas. They were at their peak in the 1950s and 1960s, winning seven out of nine championships at one point. Chivas still contend and have a rather romantic image. A Mexican Green Bay Packers, perhaps. They have won ten championships so far. (The UNAM Pumas have five titles, including the two from 2004.) Chivas, by the way, is Spanish for “goats” in Spanish, an insult once hurled at the team that is now been embraced with pride.

Early in the second half, Pumas are awarded a shaky – to my partisan eyes, at least – penalty and even the score. (After the game, DC United goalie Nick Rimando – admittedly a biased party – said that it was “one of the worst PK calls ever against me.”) The game continues with neither side able to take the edge, although as the road team, Pumas would be happier with a draw, confident of winning the second leg in the altitude and smog of Mexico City. (This confidence would prove well-placed as Pumas dominate that later game.)

A few minutes after the penalty, United midfielder Ben Olsen launches a rocket from outside the box that forces a diving save from the Pumas goalie. Later, United has a shot cleared off the line. There is a late surge of electricity when little Freddy Adu enters the game with about 12 minutes to go. Even many of the die-hard Pumas fans who ignore the MLS have heard of this boy wonder. With his first touch of the ball he sweetly dribbles by a defender before being hacked down. A couple of minutes later Adu sprints on to a through pass and gets a shot off but the ball deflects away, only earning United a corner kick, which they promptly waste.

The game ends a 1-1 draw. The fans depart buzzing. Pumas fans have had a taste of the MLS and we have seen some of the Mexican league, a glimpse of the two sides of soccer reality in America. The future of the MLS experiment may depend in part on persuading a share of these diehard Mexican league fans – or perhaps their children – to come to more MLS games or at least to watch them on television, which would both grow the league’s fanbase and increase the sport’s cachet with advertisers eager to connect with America’s growing Hispanic population.

A potential vehicle for moving these two worlds closer together is the MLS team DC United had opened the season against, Chivas USA, an offshoot of the storied Mexican team, and wearing the same red and white stripes as the Guadalajara mothership. Chivas is now owned by Jorge Vergara, a gregarious Mexican multi-millionaire, who originally made his money with herbal supplements. He recently bought into MLS, adding an expansion team in Los Angeles, home to many Chivas fans, hoping to strengthen the brand further in the US. (Perhaps worried about being outflanked, Club America promptly had talks with MLS about following suit.) While not able to field a purely Mexican team in America – the limits on non-American players make that difficult – they will have a distinctively Mexican flavor.

If Chivas USA draws Mexican league fans to pay more attention to the MLS, it could push the two separate universes closer together. In the meantime, our language-based segregation. If I want to know who is winning south of the border, I have to watch the game myself. We live in two separate soccer worlds, divided by language.

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