An American friend will be seated in Azteca today when the Mexicans face New Zealand in the first leg of a home-and-home World Cup qualifier. Earlier this week, he and I exchanged the obligatory musings about bringing along some rain gear, or at least a wide-brimmed hat, to guard against flying bags of urine — especially once he revealed that he’d be rooting for the Kiwis. All well and good to be so declaratively brave in a Facebook exchange; we’ll see how overtly manifest his support will be when the whistle blows.
There are, of course, myriad dramas swirling around the Mexican capital today, as El Tri desperately attempt to punch their tickets to Brazil and quell a national anxiety that has raged for months. Our neighbors to the south stumbled badly throughout CONCACAF’s Hexagonal qualifiers. The security blanket of Stadio Azteca — a place where Mexicans had, until this summer, lost only one time in World Cup qualifying history — has been shredded. They’ve gone through three coaches in three months. Mexicans view World Cup qualification as a birthright, but were it not for the Americans’ last minute victory over Panama in the final qualifier, El Tri would have already been eliminated.
But my friend’s decision to go south and root for the Kiwis begs a more nuanced, decidedly North American question: Should U.S. soccer fans be rooting for the Mexicans today, and next week, when the second leg is played in Auckland?
Yes, the Mexicans are our most bitter regional rivals. But they also represent our confederation, and their failure to qualify would diminish CONCACAF, perhaps diminish the region’s automatic qualifying places for the 2018 World Cup, and certainly diminish this summer’s tournament.
It’s hard not to admire the Kiwis and their grit: They were the only undefeated team in South Africa 2010, grinding out three desultory draws. But the Mexicans — with their hordes of traveling fans, attractive style, outsized national expectations, and seeming inability to play for desultory, low-scoring results — would be the clear choice of neutrals the world over.
But are we, as U.S. soccer supporters, neutrals? Just what are our obligations here?
These questions cannot be soberly addressed without first considering how Mexican fans might react were the roles reversed, for they are anything but neutral on the subject of U.S. soccer.
Let’s boil it down: They hate us.
There is indeed no nuance here for the Mexicans. For 24 hours, perhaps they appreciated the fact that our win in Panama — actually, a tie would have done it — saved their bacon, enabling this last-ditch qualifying opportunity vs. New Zealand. But they don’t give a damn about the confederation or its reputation: If the roles were reversed, the Mexicans would be rooting for New Zealand.
The U.S.-Mexico rivalry is completely unique in this respect: I can’t think of another example where the vitriol is so one-sided. They don’t see the rise of U.S. soccer these last two decades as a boost for CONCACAF, or a means to better prepare their own teams for World Cup performance — an issue of longstanding for the Mexicans, frankly, coming as they do from such a notoriously weak confederation. They don’t see a true rival here in North America as remotely interesting or worthwhile. They don’t see the positive impact of Mexican-Americans — on U.S. rosters, on our style of play — as an ego-boosting reflection of their own soccer prowess.
Mexicans see the rise of U.S. soccer as an affront.
El Tri have even gotten in the habit of playing friendly internationals in the U.S., where huge numbers of expatriates guarantee a sellout — and max revenue for the Mexican Football Federation. For fans of the national team living in Mexico (which is to say, the entire country), this is viewed as yet another indignity.
Soccer is one of the few things Mexicans have always been able to lord over their rich, voracious, imperialist neighbors to the north: tequila, daytime soaps, proper tortillas and futbol. These are people who still revile Landon Donovan for discreetly taking a pre-game piss on a Guadalajara field — 9 years ago. In a youth tournament! They viewed it, and continue to view it, all these years later, as a willful desecration of Mexican soil.
Mexican fans wish us ill, and this broad, cultural dynamic clearly spills over to the players themselves, who understand they are expected to win against the Yanquis, and win big. Failure to do so will subject them to ongoing, perhaps lifelong harassment from their own fans and media. It might cost a coach his job or a player his place in the national team.
There is no real pressure for the U.S. team to perform against Mexico. There is no day-to-day job security at stake, no broad ramifications. Soccer doesn’t yet mean that much to Americans, culturally. That’s not the case for Mexico. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
Watch the Mexican players the next time they face the Americans. After the national anthems, when they make their way down the line — shaking hands as part of the FIFA-mandated, pre-game ritual — there are no smiles and niceties exchanged, not from the Mexicans. They are stoned faced because their compatriots are watching them, ready to pounce on idle chumminess. Observe them after the game ends. If the Mexicans should lose, many pointedly refuse to shake their opponents’ hands. This is very bad form according to the etiquette of international futbol especially. But they know what’s at stake. They can’t afford to be palzy-walzy with the Yanquis — Mexican fans and media would not stand for it.
In fact, should a Mexican player present an American opponent with a truly cheap shot — like the time Ramon Ramirez kicked Alexi Lalas in the balls, in 1997, or when assistant coach Paco Ramirez bitch-slapped Frankie Hedjuk after the Americans eliminated Mexico from the 2002 World Cup — he is hailed as a kind of hero.
I’m torn on this subject, because the U.S.-Mexico rivalry is littered with this sort of bullshit behavior from the Mexicans. But I understand their emotional response, even if I don’t respect it. They’re toting baggage that I legitimately cannot imagine.
Indeed, I find myself rooting for the Mexicans when they’re not playing the U.S., in the same way I will surely root for the Hondurans this summer in Brazil. They are North Americans, after all. They carry the banner for soccer in this part of the world. They play with flair, to win. The Mexicans in particular truly do add something to a big tournament, in a way that New Zealand never could.
So, my friend is on his own down there in Mexico City today, as I — and the 100,000 on hand in Stadio Azteca — will be rooting for El Tri over this two-legged qualifier. And part of the reason is, I know this sort of behavior will confound and piss off our Mexicans brothers all the more.