Best Sports Rivalry in North America
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:
Donald Trump thinks Pope Francis is “too political” because he will visit a camp of migrants during his stop in Mexico.
This comes while Trump is seeking – and getting! – support from Christian voters. I bet he hates the idea of the Pope building showers and toilets in Rome for the homeless – those loafers – and speaking with tolerance about gays, asking “Who am I to judge?”
It seems clear to me that Trump does not have normal human compassion. His success with Americans as a sneering tyrant on a reality television show has further emboldened his unchecked infantile impulses.
Yet some Americans, professing religious values, fall for him.
He’s their kind of guy.
Trump’s criticism of Pope Francis reminds me of another papal trip to Mexico, which I covered, oh my goodness, 37 years ago.
The new Pope, John Paul II, in his first overseas trip, arrived in the Zócalo, the center of ancient Mexico City.
The Pope issued a call for the Catholic clergy of Latin America to get back in uniform and deliver the sacraments and not bring some semblance of self-determination to the poor. Don’t be political, in other words.
The coded words sent a message all over Latin America, allowing governments to clamp down on activism toward the poor, including in Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s native Argentina. This Pope has seen repression up close, has been deeply scarred by it.
The latest Trump outburst reminds me of Mexico in February of 1979 when I twice met Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador, who spurned luxuries and slept in a peasant hammock and encouraged help for the poor.
I wrote about my encounters with Romero a year ago:
I asked Romero whether the words from Mexico City did not put religious activists in trouble all over Latin America. His response was a somber yes, without any sign of fear or weakening. A year later he was assassinated while saying Mass.
Trump has surely never heard of Oscar Arnulfo Romero. I assume he knows nothing of the desaparecidos, the thousands of Argentines who were taken away, never to be seen again.
Trump knows gold-plated bathrooms and tactical bankruptcies and serial marriages.
The Pope builds toilets and showers for the homeless. In an ancient ritual of humility and service, he washes and kisses the feet of Muslims and convicts.
Trump wants to build a wall. Boasts that Mexico will pay for it.
And many Americans professing religious leanings are charmed by him.
* * *
(Terrific article about Trump's world view:)
I write this not only out of admiration for The New York Times but out of love for Mexico.
Many years ago my wife and I took a day trip to Teotihuacán and climbed the thick steps of the Pyramid of the Moon. We stayed a long time on top, marveling at the view, and still recall how it was easier – less scary -- to climb down backwards.
We’ve never been back to Teotihuacán but I have returned to Mexico for work and pleasure. I consider it a dear neighbor.
On Tuesday I read every word of three full pages of superb reporting in the Times about the profanation of that holy place. The article documents how a branch of the American company, Wal-Mart of Arkansas, apparently sent cash to evade zoning laws designed to maintain the green belt around the Pyramid.
Wal-Mart officials apparently found officials in Mexico who would take the money, although other people were suspicious and opposed the new store that went up, that looms there still.
The journalism by the Times is compelling. Everything fits, everything sounds right. I am less upset with venal officials in Mexico who did not mind cheapening their patrimony than I am with the American corporation that overlooked clear signs this was happening. Wal-Mart. Nice folks.
I was going to fulminate about pompous flag-waving self-proclaimed job creators who tell how much good they do by accumulating riches. But read it for yourself, in case you missed it. It really is worth the effort.
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.