Yes, yes, I know. I grew up (and suffered) when the Brooklyn Dodgers lived in the same town as the New York Giants and Yankees. (Bobby Thomson! Yogi Berra!) But that’s long gone.
I know all about the long Yankee-Red Sox rivalry, and the great football and basketball and hockey rivalries.
I covered Ohio State-Michigan football back in the day, and the glorious Lakers-Celtics finals in the mid-80s and Islanders-Rangers (The organ and the Potvin Chant in the Garden!)
But nothing is like Mexico-USA in soccer, for sheer nastiness, in a sport based on precious goals – and fueled by long-held stereotypes and resentments.
History lesson: you cannot be casual against the Mexicans. Planted in their memories is a computer chip from 1847 when Gen. Winfield Scott marched his troops from Vera Cruz to Mexico City. (“From the Halls of Montezuma….”)
The two squads had another episode of their rivalry Sunday night in Denver, in the finals of a regional tournament called the Nations Cup.
There were homophobic chants, apparently now a staple of Mexican “fans,” plus bottles and other stuff flying out of the stands, one hard object conking Gio Reyna, the 18-year-old wonderboy who had scored the first restorative goal for the U.S. ( Apparently, he is okay.)
All that stuff is deplorable, but the rivalry, the history, this great sport itself, is compelling. It held me for three hours in front of the tube Sunday night, watching the US rally twice for a 3-2 victory with repeated and late heroics.
The Mexican players are always fired up; sometimes the U.S. players need a reminder. At 60 seconds, an American defender made a super-cool pass to his right to clear the ball from goal mouth, but the Mexicans were in predatory gear and poached the pass for a goal, making the evening seem disastrous.
Hard lesson: You cannot be casual against Mexico, which has world-level talent, polished in some of the best leagues in Europe. The U.S. is just catching up.
Never forget. Three American former players in the pre-game TV booth remembered that lesson. In 2009, in a qualifying game for the World Cup, in that ominous, rumbling torture chamber known as Estadio Azteca, Charlie Davies scored against Mexico in only the 9th minute, and tore off toward the stands to exult, wherever American fans happened to be.
“See you later!” recalled Clint Dempsey and Oguchi Onyewu, his boothmates, two older players who also were on that field in 2009. They watched the talented, exuberant and innocent Davies strut into a barrage of debris from Mexican fans and quickly seek the safety of midfield.
(Oh, yes, Mexico rallied for a 2-1 victory in front of the home crowd that night. Tough place. I remember one U.S. match in Azteca, 2001, when the U.S. bus parked in a so-called secure area, only to be harassed by a lone heckler – a borracho, a drunk, a dwarf on a carpeted skateboard, given the run of the lot, rattling off Spanish and English maledictions at the visitors: Bienvenido a Azteca.
Every moment on the field is a battle. Personal. On Sunday, after a Mexican goal was disallowed because of a minimal offsides violation, Reyna, only 18, scored the equalizer in the 27th minute. In the stands, his parents, Claudio Reyna and Danielle Egan Reyna, both former American players, celebrated.
I immediately flashed back to the best game I ever saw cool, selfless Claudio play, in the round of 16 in the 2002 World Cup in Jeonju, South Korea. He distributed the ball and defended and overtly set the tone for a 2-0 victory – also the best game I have ever seen the U.S. play, knocking out their rivals and moving into the quarters where they would lose, controversially, to Germany.
(That score was familiar, from a World Cup qualifier in a storm with wind and rain and evil greenish clouds, in Columbus, Ohio, in 2001, soon prompting a chant: “dos a cero!”) There were three other dos-a-cero American victories in that decade.
Sunday night’s game was not 2-0. Mexico scored and Gio Reyna tied it.
The American keeper, Zack Steffen, went out with a knee injury in the 69th minute, and his replacement, Ethan Horvath, hastily warmed up, getting more action than Steffen had, and responding marvelously.
Late in the overtime, two Mexicans put the squeeze on Christian Pulisic, the aging wonderboy, now all of 22, who went down, and drew the penalty kick. Pulisic coolly placed the ball in the upper-right corner (“where the spiders play,” said one of the American ex-players in the booth).
Some Mexican fans promptly unleashed a homophobic chant – against nobody in particular – and the regional officials threatened to halt the match and replay it Monday behind closed doors. (NB: most of the Mexico fans, many residing in the U.S., are sportsmanlike.)
“Bonkers,” was the perfect description of the mood swings, by my friend Steven Goff, longtime soccer correspondent for the Washington Post.
In the closing moments, Horvath had to defend a penalty kick by the venerable Mexican captain, Andres Guardado, just off the bench, and he dove to his right to punch away the shot for the victory. Later, as quoted by my man Goff, Horvath said he had been well prepared for tendencies during the week by his goalkeeper coach, using films from other Mexican matches. (My long-time colleague, Mike Woitalla of Soccer America, rated Horvath a 9/10 for his spontaneous heroics. Reyna and Pulisic were rated at 8/10.)
The U.S. celebrated – mostly toward the center of the field. Always a good idea. But the giddiness will fade quickly: Mexico still holds a series lead of 36 victories, 16 draws and 20 losses – and keeps producing talent.
(I was struck, particularly, by the skill and gall of Diego Lainez, all 128 pounds of him, three days short of 21, who plays for Real Betis in La Liga of Spain. Mexico could afford to save him for the 78th minute; he did not score until the 79th minute, and spent his spare time lobbying the field official.)
The rivals are probably fated to meet again in the qualifying stages for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Whenever they meet, there will be epic plays and mistakes and oaths and missiles from the stands, as well as moments of world-level soccer skills.
For me, whenever the two squads meet, in a “friendly” or a World Cup match, it’s the best rivalry in North America.
Try to access my NYT article from 2001, from the testing grounds of Azteca:
See if you can access the wrapup via that great asset, Soccer America:
Ditto, the Goff article in the WaPo:
Wikipedia has all the details of the Mexico-USA rivalry:
Welcome to World Cup 2022, the most absurd thing that the routinely absurd world of sports has ever produced.
Those extreme descriptions were what virtually the entire world, save for those who had walked off with bags of cash from Qatar, called the awarding of soccer’s greatest event to the incredibly tiny, incredibly wealthy country back in 2010.
Twelve years ago, many were convinced this event couldn’t possibly happen: staging the world’s biggest sporting event in a country the size of Connecticut, one with zero soccer culture and even less soccer infrastructure? The tournament couldn’t possibly take place in 120-degree heat, and FIFA, the governing body of soccer, most certainly wouldn’t upend football leagues around the world to change the traditional summer schedule, could it?
And, for God’s sake, what about the beer?
Those were just the logistical concerns. The moral concerns are far more distressing. FIFA, so busy paying lip service to equality, couldn’t possibly expect the world to embrace a country where you could go to prison for being gay, where women’s rights are severely curtailed and female victims of sexual assault could go to prison, charged with engaging in extramarital sex. And all those questions came before the global realization that the World Cup was being built on the backs of migrant labor: modern-day slaves held in Qatar with virtually no rights, low wages and no ability to leave. Migrants make up 90% of Qatar’s stated population of 3 million. The country’s native-born equal about 300,000, or roughly the size of Anaheim.
---Ann Killion, columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle.