Soccer’s Greatest Rivalry
Advancing to the final rounds of the world cup would require nothing short of a miracle for the United States and Mexico’s national teams. Unable to compete at the highest levels of global soccer, ambitions are scaled, and cross-border bragging rights become all that matters. Historic grievances are never too far from the surface in these contests. The complicated, intertwined, and sometimes bloody history between the United States and Mexico fuels passions that are projected onto the field, creating what some are calling soccer’s greatest rivalry.
Make no mistake, for fans of both teams, soccer is more than a game. At times, the rivalry can get downright nasty. Supporters of Mexico’s El Tricolores have on occasion chanted “Osama, Osama, Osama,” and rained a fusillade of urine-filled bags, limes, beer bottles and batteries at US players. Fans of Team U.S.A have invoked a battle in Texas War of Independence, raising banners reading ‘Remember the Alamo!,’ a not-so-subtle reminder of the pivotal event that led up to Mexico’s loss Texas in 1836, and eventually, the rest of the southwest in 1848, two-thirds of its national territory.
The US-Mexico soccer rivalry is drama-filled, both on and off the field. Trash-talking Mexican Goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez made lewd remarks about the mother of US’s star forward Landon Donovan in a magazine article and Forward Luis Hernández allegedly told Donovan, “I will find your mother and kill her” during a World Cup match in South Korea. Donovan, in an incident dripping with symbolism, offended Mexican sensibilities by urinating on the hallowed field at Guadalajara’s Estadio Jalisco.
It wasn’t always this way. Until very recently, there wasn’t much of a rivalry at all. Mexico dominated the United States on the soccer field for most of the 20th century. Ironically, the ascendancy of the US soccer team can be attributed to Mexico. According to soccer journalist Luis Bueno, Mexico more than any other nation has forced the United States to step up its game.
“Mexico has played a pivotal role in the growth of American soccer,” Bueno said. “No other nation provided the U.S. a nearly annual litmus test of where the Americans were in the 1990s, when the U.S. went from not having qualified for a World Cup in four decades to trying to host one and grow into a soccer nation. Where would the United States be without Mexico? Easily. Had it not been for El Tricolor, the U.S. would not be anywhere near the level it is in 2010.”
According to Bruce Arena, who coached the United States soccer team during the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, Team U.S.A. has achieved parity with the Mexican squad. “Americans don’t step on the field against the Mexicans and feel they’re underdogs,” said Arena said., “Previously, they were intimidated by the talent and reputation of the Mexican team. I think that has disappeared.” In fact, the most current International Federation of Association Football ratings, have the the United States and Mexico ranked at 16th and 17th spots, respectively.
The days leading up to their most recent meeting, a world cup qualifying match at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca, captivated a beleaguered nation. It’s been a rough go for Mexico recently. A “perfect storm” of reeling drug violence, swine flu, and the local effects of a global downturn, have left Mexicans wondering how things could get any worse. A defeat at the hands of their archrivals would be too much for the nation to bear. Mexico needed a victory.
In the game’s final minutes, tied at 1-1, Mexico’s Miguel Sabah’s sent a blast rocketing past the US goalkeeper, sending every one of the 105,000 El Tricolores fans in the stadium into a celebratory frenzy.
In Tijuana, the streets erupted. Within minutes of the final whistle, thousands of Tijuanenses flooded the traffic circles around Zona Rio, waving flags, banging drums and running through the streets. A giant ceramic eagle holding a snake—the symbol on Mexico’s flag—managed to appear out of nowhere. Tijuana police could do little to keep the swarm of fans from completely taking over city intersections.
Having a distinct geographic advantage over the country’s interior, Tijuana’s fans celebrated Mexico’s triumph by marching through the streets of the city, eventually veering northward, right into that strange space between where the United States geopolitical boundary technically begins and the border gate checkpoint. There, just a few meters in, on the soil of their vanquished rivals, they chanted, “gringos, where are you now?”