The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

The Auld Enemy

Posted by steigs on February 5, 2008

So it’s US-Mexico time again, a friendly tomorrow in Houston.  Let the previews begin!

Will it be more of the same?  As Chang rightly puts it:

Pregame trash-talking from Mexico, followed by a game where Mexico dominated technically and in terms of possession and yet lost. The post-game routine usually consisted of Mexico stating it was the better team and how it didn’t deserve to lose.

Well, actually, so far it appears that Mexico won’t trash-talk us before the game.  Does this signal some respect?  Or just a lowering of expectations from the now twice-beaten egomaniac Hugo Sanchez?  Uh oh.  Maybe that means the rest of the usual fare is off the menu.  In fact, I’m expecting a draw tomorrow.  It just seems like maybe Mexico is due.  It’s not like it’s a real home game for the US — you play the game in Houston, you get a whole lot of Mexican immigrants in green jerseys in the stands.  And I’d rather mess this game up than one in qualifying or in the Gold Cup.

I think what I find most intriguing is the angle Chang points to — here comes the next generation.  We’ve got Adu and Altidore.  They’re starting to see players from their U-17 World Cup winning team enter the national team picture.  (Hello, dos Santos!)  And let’s face it, their young guns have a better pedigree (so far) then ours.  The US has a wonder boy at Benfica — they’ve got one at Barca, for example.  Altidore still plays in MLS, after all, even if Real Madrid is supposedly watching.  We’re doing pretty good in international youth tourneys — Mexico actually won one.

The player I’m actually curious to see again against Mexico is Michael Bradley, who has turned into a goal machine in the Dutch league.  He’s a big boy, a physical presence in midfield.  We need him to play well and show that he can disrupt the Mexican attack as well as generate some forward movement for us.  He seems to be tearing it up in Holland — is he making a leap in prowess that will lead him somewhere else soon and let him be a middle-of-the-park fixture for the US for years to come?  This would be an excellent time to show us that.

This seems an excellent time as well to post my tale of attending the ’05 qualifier against Mexico in Columbus, that dos et cero affair that clinched our qualification for Germany 2006.  That tale after the jump!

Columbus B September 2005

Road trip!  M. and I are engaged in that classic American pastime, hitting the road over Labor Day weekend.  We drive east from Washington, up through the Maryland mountains, along the route of the age-old ANational Pike,@ bound for Ohio.  The sun is shining and the roads are uncrowded, perhaps in part because gas has recently spiked to nearly $3 a gallon.

Our destination is Columbus.  We are lucky enough to hold tickets to what is the single biggest soccer game in America this year B US versus Mexico in World Cup qualifying.  Mexico won its home game earlier in the year, a solid 2-1 victory in Mexico City=s imposing 115,000 capacity Estadio Azteca.  Estadio Azteca, often simply known as AEl Azteca,@ was built for the 1968 Olympics and is the only stadium to host two World Cup finals.  It provides Mexico with a remarkable home field advantage B they have lost only one game there ever in World Cup qualifying.  (And it wasn=t to the US.)  Now it was our turn to have home field advantage.

The last stage of World Cup qualifying in our region B our region being essentially everything from Panama north, including the myriad islands of the Caribbean B involves six countries playing a year-long series of round-robin games so that each country plays all the others twice, once at home and once away.  For the US, this means road games in very hostile places like San Jose, Costa Rica and Guatemala City, as well as the intimidating El Azteca.  The Labor Day game we are bound for represents the seventh of the ten games and by this point both Mexico and the US are well clear of the other four countries, with Mexico just slightly ahead in the standings on the strength of their earlier win in Mexico City. 

As a result, with the top three of the six teams earning a World Cup invite B and the fourth a play-off against an also-ran from another region B both the US and Mexico are in excellent shape to qualify for Germany 2006.  In fact, if either team wins the game in Columbus that team will have already earned an invitation with three games remaining.  Such is the current dominance of the US and Mexico in our region.

This shared top-dog status is a very recent development, and is much resented by Mexico, long the dominant soccer force in our region.  When the World Cup was a smaller tourney Mexico was usually our region=s sole representative.  One nickname for Mexico, in fact, is AGiants of CONCACAF,@ although they are mostly known as AEl Tri@ for the three colors they wear.

All in all, Mexico has only missed three World Cups since 1950, most recently in 1990 when they were disqualified for fielding an underage player in a youth tourney.  (A punishment that opened the door for the young Americans to qualify B cue conspiracy theories about FIFA wanting to boost the game in the US.)  For all this experience, Mexico had only won a single game before the 1970 tourney they hosted.  They also hosted the 1986 tourney when Colombia, the original host, proved too unstable to pull it off.  Mexico has been more successful of late, advancing out of the group stage in the last three World Cups.  However, they promptly lost the initial knockout game each time, and have yet to match their quarter-final performances when they had home field advantage in 1970 and 1986.  Mexico has become the equivalent of a dangerous NCAA tourney team from a lesser conference B a Utah or Cincinnati, perhaps B with a string of Sweet 16s behind them but no Final Fours.

As in so many places, the origins of soccer in Mexico can be traced back to expatriate Brits.  The oldest team is Pachuca, founded by miners from Cornwall in 1901.  The team=s first Mexican-born player didn=t see the field until 1908.  The popularity of the sport grew quickly and by 1915 most of the team=s players were Mexican.  A league was initially begun by 1908 but was disrupted by the Mexican Revolution.  Mexican soccer was largely regional in its early days, with the most well-known league including teams in and around Mexico City.  The current Mexican league really began in 1943, when a nationwide and professional league was organized.

Mexico has often functioned as a soccer island, dominant in its region and distant from other important leagues and teams.  The Mexican league has paid well in recent decades and, Hugo Sanchez aside, few Mexicans have joined the many South Americans trying to make it Europe.  These days, in fact, there are probably more Americans B even more Canadians B playing in European leagues than there are Mexicans.  This can give Mexicans a bit of a complex.  They are certain their best players match up with those they see playing for Real Madrid or AC Milan but have few opportunities for it to be proven true B except by the national team in World Cups.

Soccer has always been one of the rare areas where Mexico ruled over the US.  Soccer was theirs, we had everything else.  English-speaking American fans, on the other hand, have an inferiority complex to the Europeans, whose leagues we follow, and are intent on proving to them that we can play.  We see beating Mexico as a step on that path.  We have less reason to focus on Mexico otherwise and fewer non-soccer grudges to nurse.  They see us as not just tripping them up as they try to show their quality to the South Americans and Europeans but as embarrassing them in a sport that they love B and one for which they know most Americans don=t share their passion.  It=s not fair.  So it is a rivalry but not necessarily a symmetrical one.

All this goes some way to explaining the edge that has crept into US-Mexico games in the last few years.  In 2001, the US hosted Mexico in Columbus in the parallel game in qualifying for the 2002 World Cup.  There were two reasons for Columbus.  First, it was an attempt to gain a measure of home field advantage.  The US could play Mexico in Los Angeles or Houston and fill a football stadium B with fans of Mexico.  Crew Stadium in Columbus is smaller, allowing a better chance to pack it with US fans, and further from the deep reservoirs of Mexico fans in states closer to the border.

The second reason was gamesmanship.  The US always struggles in the rarified smoggy air of Mexico City.  There is a rumor that US Soccer has offered to play Mexico in a place like Los Angeles if Mexico would schedule their home game in a place besides Mexico City.  No dice, apparently.  They enjoy making our team endure El Azteca.  In 2001 the Columbus US-Mexico game fell much earlier in the qualifying schedule, February 28 to be precise.  And they played at night.  The result?  Frigid temperatures, clearly uncomfortable Mexican players and a 2-0 US victory.  Now we are trying it again, without the cold weather.

M. and I arrive in Columbus in the late afternoon, just in time to catch the closing stages of Ohio State=s easy win over Miami of Ohio on the local sports radio station.  The US-Mexico game may be the biggest soccer event of the year in America but it is only the second most important sporting event in Columbus on this first Saturday of the college football season.  The beginning of college football also dictates limited television coverage of the game.  (Hello, ESPN Classic.)

Crew Stadium is a couple of miles north of downtown, right by the State Fairgrounds and near the Ohio State campus, which means a residential area of aging houses filled with students.  As we exit the interstate, the ticket scalpers immediately come into view, walking along the street, buying and selling.  It is an almost drive-through business.  They seem be getting a lot of action, particularly with the Mexico fans.  Ticket distribution was primarily through US Soccer B that=s how we got ours B and the Columbus Crew of MLS, making it a challenge for the average Mexican-American fan to score one.

We are staying at the fully booked Days Inn, a few steps away from the entrance road to the stadium grounds and, in classic American fashion, hard by the freeway exit.  There is a McDonald=s on the corner, which is really hopping.  We meet up with M.=s parents, who drove up from Missouri, and join the McDonald=s hordes for a quick early dinner.  The lines are long, the crowds mixed in loyalties B the Mexican fans proud in the green national team jersey replicas, the US fans mostly in t-shirts and jerseys.  It is a cordial, polite fast food environment.

M.=s mother is not a soccer fan so she stays behind as we go over to the game.  (She=s along for the Columbus tourism planned for the next day.)  M.=s father, D., followed the classic route to soccer fandom for a non-immigrant of his generation B coaching the teams of his children.  It became a father-daughter bond, back in the days before Mia Hamm was a household name, forged on trips to St. Louis for indoor soccer games and following the US mens national team in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

We walk along the access road, dodging the endless line of incoming cars, excited by the atmosphere.  Beside the stadium is an extensive parking area where the great Midwestern tradition of Saturday tailgating has met soccer fandom.  Groups are kicking soccer balls around, immense flags are flying over vehicles, and a whole lot of beer is being consumed.  All sorts of music is playing beside the grills and kickabouts B rock, reggae, nortena, country.  America=s soccer nation is here, in all its diversity.

Crew Stadium was the first of the Asoccer-specific@ stadiums built for MLS, part of a strategy to capture more game-day revenue and to garner extra money by renting it out for other events, such as concerts and high school football games.  Better a landlord than a tenant.  Crew Stadium is a spartan affair, crisp and modest, with two decks of seats along the sides of the field and smaller stands behind the goals.

We are showing our colors.  I=m wearing a red US Soccer t-shirt and M. has on a t-shirt that replicates the US jersey of her favorite player, DaMarcus Beasley.  D. has trumped us B he is wearing a replica of the 1950 US World Cup jersey, the team who upset the English.  It is white with a distinctive sash across the front.  The atmosphere is electric with tension and anticipation as we take our seats up in the second deck.  They are decent, along one side of the field, a little closer to the center circle than the goal.  Behind the goal to our right is a wall of red-clad fans, the ultras of the US team, Sam=s Army, founded in the mid-1990s to bring a more passionate style to our fandom.  They stand, they sing, and they insult.  I am glad they are around, although I prefer to watch the game elsewhere, where I can focus more closely on the action.

The effort to limit the number of Mexican fans has been only partly successful.  To my eye, they appear to be about one-third of the crowd.  (The US is possibly the only soccer country in the world with such a problem maintaining home field advantage.)  The Mexican fans are better about wearing a consistent outfit, the green team jersey, so I may have over-estimated their numbers.  They do make up virtually the whole section beside us, complete with a guy in the front to organize cheers.  Our section is mixed, with a family of Mexico fans behind us.  There is hardly an edge of hooligan danger, though, since so many of them seem to have brought their kids.

The sun is setting as the players finish pre-game warm-ups.  The PA system pounds through America-themed tunes B ABorn in the USA,@ AAmerican Girl, A Young Americans.@  The music is ignored as sporadic bouts of cheering and clapping and whistling break out.  The tension mounts.

The teams trot off, inspiring more cheering and clapping, to get their final instructions in the dressing rooms.  I feel like a concert is about to begin, like a loved band is about to sprint out on to the stage and kick into a favorite number.

The University of Dayton marching band comes out to provide our national anthem.  They can=t be heard, really, but the American fans pick up the tune as it goes along.  The Mexican fans are quiet, showing respect, and when it is their turn, they sing the Mexican anthem just as loudly B if not more so B than we did ours.

A skydiver floats down with an American flag, a bit of show business that revs the crowd even more.  The teams come out.  The place is rocking.  Then, a moment of silence for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, dead just days before in the floods along the Gulf Coast and the chaos of New Orleans.  The place falls quiet.  There is a lot of shushing to make sure it stays that way.  For a heartbeat or two, we are reminded of things that transcend sport and patriotism.

Then, game on!

It is a physical affair, right from the start.  Beasley gets fouled so hard he limps off for a few moments, making us fear he will have to come out of the game.  But he shakes it off, only to get knocked down again and again.  Clearly the Mexican players fear the little speedster.  M., watching her favorite get beaten up, stews about the Mexican team and thinks the referee may need to start handing out yellow cards.

The chants accompany the game. 





The US looks the better team, controlling more of the play, as you would expect of the home team.  However, they generate few clear scoring chances.  Beasley and Eddie Lewis are playing well.  Forward Brian McBride gets to passes and flicks them on, with his foot or his head, into dangerous places.  Unfortunately, no one is making the runs necessary to take advantage of them.  There are a handful of shots but nothing to really worry the Mexican goalie.

The Mexican team eventually find a semblance of rhythm, stringing passes together mostly by working the ball among their defenders.  Their fans Aole@ as the ball goes between their players.  However, when they go on the attack, immense young American defender Onguich Onyehwu (nicknamed AGooch@ on Bigsoccer, from his first name), capably keeps the ball away from their forwards.  About 20 minutes in, the Mexicans manage their first shot.  It goes well wide of the goal but their fans erupt as if they had forced a spectacular save from American goalie Kasey Keller. 

Crew Stadium has modern scoreboards and we get to see replays, allowing me to mock Mexico=s ineffective offense and M. to second guess the referee.  (Having been a referee as a high school job, she has better standing to do so than most fans.)  Then, just before half-time, Mexico comes close to a goal against the run of play, a tricky free kick that does actually force Keller into an impressive diving save.  Which he pulls off B one aspect of American soccer few can criticize is our talent at the goalkeeper position.

During the half-time break I find myself in a lengthy line for the men=s room behind a Mexico fan in the usual green jersey and a sombrero.  We make civil small talk, along with the Sam=s Army member behind me.  The Mexican fan asks if we know the Ohio State score B it turns out he=s a fan because his brother is a student there and he also admits he sometimes roots for the US team because his wife is an American.  Not, of course, when they are playing Mexico, though.  We agree that it is a tight tough game, very competitive.  It feels like a 1-0 game, decided on a bit of magic or a mistake.  The other two are planning on making the trek to Germany for the World Cup and shake hands before we part to do our duty, pledging to root for the other=s team while there.

In our seats, M., D., and I also assess the first half, worrying that our attacking midfielder, veteran Claudio Reyna, doesn=t seem to be orchestrating the offense very well and that right-winger Steve Ralston may need to come off because he has been uninvolved.  We consider the options for substitutes.  (I have come along way from the 1997 qualifier against Jamaica when I barely knew the starting US players, let alone those on the bench.)  It feels like we should win tonight but it is hardly clear how we will manage it.

In the early going of the second half, the game changes.  About eight minutes in, the US wins a free kick.  The 6-4 Gooch gets a head to it but his shot hits the crossbar.  The ball, however, falls right into the path of the criticized Steve Ralston, who kicks it in.  Goal!  1-0, United States.  (AIt was about the easiest goal I=ve ever scored,@ said Ralston after the game.)

Mayhem!  Sam=s Army erupts.  We=re standing and cheering and yelling ourselves hoarse.  All that pent-up nervousness is translated into noise.  We=re ahead!  We=re winning!

Then, just, as the crowd is subsiding, the US strikes again.  The team executes a neat give-and-go on a corner kick played short, the also criticized Reyna perfectly setting up a streaking Beasley.  He demonstrates exactly why the Mexicans were afraid of him, bending the ball by the keeper.  2-0, US!                                        

The mayhem returns!  Now, with the game almost certainly decided, the crowd really gets going.  There is a roar like Ohio State just got a touchdown against Michigan.  Confetti explodes from Sam=s Army.  We=re standing, jumping, shouting!  Inarticulate yells cut through the night.  We=re ahead!  We=re winning!  We=re going to the World Cup!

As the game resumes, and the US fans settle down, the desperate Mexico fans in the section next to us start chanting ASi, se puede!@  This translates as Ayes, we can,@ as in Ayes, we can come back!@  The US fan response comes quickly and cuttingly B and in Spanish.  ADos et cero!  Dos et cero!@  In other words, 2-0.  At one level is simply a way to say Ascoreboard,@ the trump card reply for fans of the team in the lead.  In the US-Mexico context, however, it has a deeper meaning.

The most important single game between the US and Mexico was played on June 17, 2002, in the round of 16 of the World Cup.  Mexico was looking to finally win a knockout round game not played in Mexico and had just topped a group featuring powerful Italy.  The US was aiming to reach the quarter-finals for the first time in the modern World Cup.  (We did finish fourth in the first World Cup way back in 1930.)  The stakes were huge.  Mexican President Vicente Fox made a bet with an undoubtedly puzzled President Bush about the game.  Fox then settled in to watch the game with his cabinet, all of them clad in Mexico jerseys.  Can you imagine one of our Presidents doing the same?  National pride, particularly Mexican national pride, was on the line.

And the US scored early and late, winning solidly 2-0.  ADos et cero!@  The Mexicans players took it badly.  The leading Mexican player, Barcelona=s Rafael Marquez, was even ejected late in the game for head-butting American Cobi Jones.  The Mexicans couldn=t believe it B they had lost to the gringos!

ASi, se puede!@

ADos et cero!@

ASi, se puede!@

ADos et cero!@

Down in the Sam=s Army section, a banner reads AKorea 2-0, Who=s Your Daddy?@  The Mexicans had come here thirsty for revenge on the US.  The El Azteca victory represented only a portion, given that they expect to win there.  Oh, they wanted to show us up in the US, and to restore their superiority in the region.  Not tonight, it appears.  And it will surely take time to erase that World Cup defeat, absent another chance to beat the US on that brightest of stages.

The game rolls on, the US in control.  The Mexican coach tries throwing on substitutes to change the dynamic.  No go.  The US team won=t let this game slip away.

Mexican fans begin to sit down, disappointed.  By the end it is mostly a ADos et cero!@ chanting crowd.  And AU-S-A!@ cheers begin to ring in the night air.

Final whistle.  Dos et cero is the final score B again.  It=s a party for the American fans B the team has officially qualified for the World Cup.  ARoad to Berlin@ t-shirts are on sale at the concession stands.  Fireworks explode in the night sky.  The players are celebrating on the field.  Defender Frankie Hejduk, who plays for the hometown Columbus Crew, sprints around, egging on cheers.  He gives his jersey to a guy dressed up as Uncle Sam.  A middle-aged woman in the row in front of us sighs, AI love Frankie.@  Her tone suggests it may have as much to do with his fit physique and surfer boy looks as with his soccer skills.  I see people running around with flags as capes.

I turn to the Mexican fan in the row behind me.  AGood game,@ he says, shaking my hand.

ASee you in Germany,@ I reply.


One Response to “The Auld Enemy”

  1. JK said

    Well Doug, you nailed most of it. It wasn’t a home game for the US, Altidore was great, the Mexican kids looked frightening, and we ended up with a draw (and judging by the way Marquez was treating Altidore, we may actually be earning their respect). Now, about that Michael Bradley, not generating a lot of forward movement, or anything, except anger and frustration at my house…

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