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Mexico-US sports rivalry steeped in history

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“Thank you U.S., our great friends.” “We love you forever and ever. God Bless America!” “We love you U.S.A.”

No, these are not the pronouncements heard at a patriotic military parade for U.S. troops or a Democratic/Republican political rally. Rather, they are the expressions of gratitude by Mexican newspapers and fans to acknowledge the role that the U.S. soccer team recently played in saving the Mexican national team from being eliminated from next year’s World Cup in Brazil.

After losing its match to Costa Rica, Mexico needed for the U.S. to beat Panama to keep its World Cup hopes alive.

The U.S., already having secured its qualification for the World Cup, was playing Panama with nothing major on the line. Down 2-1, the U.S. team rallied to beat Panama during the extra time allocated at the end of the game and came out with a 3-2 victory. This knocks Panama out of the World Cup and allows Mexico to play New Zealand twice in November for another shot at qualifying.

Mexican newspaper front pages carry messages of thanks to the U.S. on Oct. 16. Due to the last-minute victory of the U.S. team over Panama, Mexico advanced to the intercontinental playoffs against New Zealand for a spot in next year’s World Cup despite losing 2-1 at Costa Rica the night before. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

Mexican newspaper front pages carry messages of thanks to the U.S. on Oct. 16. Due to the last-minute victory of the U.S. team over Panama, Mexico advanced to the intercontinental playoffs against New Zealand for a spot in next year’s World Cup despite losing 2-1 at Costa Rica the night before. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

The U.S. team simply could have coasted to a loss with Panama in a game that didn’t matter in the grand scheme, but its mix of A-squad and B-squad players pulled it out and won the gratitude of Mexican soccer fans.

Sports are the great stage on which people come together or see their animosities from other aspects of their lives heightened. Mexicans are as fanatical about their soccer as Americans are about professional football.

Mexico seems to relish beating the U.S. in soccer more than any other rival it plays – the bitterness and frustration of past U.S.-Mexico relations comes into play in this and other sports.

I once went to watch Mexican boxing champion Julio Cesar Chavez fight Gene Haugen in Mexico City’s Olympic Stadium. More than 132,000 spectators attended this event, the second-largest crowd for a boxing match in history.

I was going to the match with a couple of friends, but they deserted me at the last minute to go to a party. I decided to go alone and had to buy a ticket from a scalper outside the stadium.

The match was so packed that I could only view it from the standing-room area, behind a chain-link fence at the very top of the stadium. All around me were Mexican boxing fans drinking liquor and ranting at the top of their lungs epithets against Americans.

Sensing danger, I pulled my collar as high up my face as I could and buried my face in the chain-link fence to avoid giving any impression that I was a stranded gringo among a drunken mob just itching to find somebody upon which to unleash its anger.

Another time I watched a U.S.-Mexico soccer match on television in Mexico City. Having won the match, thousands of Mexicans poured into the streets with flags and all things Mexican. My friends and I walked out to the Angel de la Independencia statue near where I lived to watch the spectacle.

Suddenly, the celebration took on a dark side. Hundreds of youth ran up to the base of the statue, which is on a slope. They then started waving Mexican flags and started a stampede down the incline, trampling anybody in their way. I saw U.S. flags burned and torn apart, and many crowd members were chanting anti-U.S. slogans.

At another U.S.-Mexico soccer match, one of my colleagues injudiciously was cheering too loudly for the U.S. After the game, a group of hooligans attacked him and his friend while stadium guards stood by and watched the beating.

My colleague ended up in the emergency room with a non-life-threatening stab wound. Needless to say, soccer fans play for keeps in our neighbor to the south.

There is a funk in Mexico because its national team (affectionately known as “El Tri” as a reference to the national tricolors), which won the gold medal in the 2012 London Olympic Games, is sputtering. Mexico is on the brink of not qualifying for next year’s World Cup, the first time since 1990.

To Mexican soccer fans, this is akin to heresy. A sign of the malaise is reflected in the fact that Mexico’s team has had four different head coaches within the last 60 days.

I know that a lot of Americans are snickering that their team, which they have seen Mexico clamoring to beat and humiliate, is responsible for keeping our North American rival’s World Cup hopes alive. Apart from the smugness factor, Americans should be rooting for Mexico’s team if for nothing more than economic reasons.

There are big bucks at stake for bars, restaurants, sports apparel shops and food companies. Millions of Mexicans living and working in the U.S. make their schedule revolve around Mexico’s games during the World Cup. Parties are held, Mexican soccer uniforms and paraphernalia are purchased, and a lot of beer is drunk.

To Mexico, I say what are friends for? Good luck against New Zealand, and we hope to see you next year in Brazil.

Now, if only our Mexican neighbors could beat a few of the Cuban boxers to help our American Olympic boxing team in the 2016 Olympic Games.

Jerry Pacheco is the executive director of the International Business Accelerator, a nonprofit trade counseling program of the New Mexico Small Business Development Centers Network. He can be reached at 575-589-2200 or at jerry@nmiba.com.

 

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