A North American Rivalry that Goes Way Beyond NAFTA: Mexico and the U.S. Go for the Goals

Kate Linthicum and Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times, June 11, 2017

Riot Police Riot Police Azteca Stadium

June 11, 2017 – Mexico City – Riot police enter Azteca Stadium. (Credit Image: © Michael Janosz/ISIPhotos via ZUMA Wire)

This was about sports, everyone agreed, about competition on the pitch, about the run-up to the 2018 soccer World Cup in Russia. Not about politics.

But when the U.S. and Mexican national teams clashed here Sunday at the capital’s celebrated Azteca Stadium, the specter of President Trump and his harsh comments about Mexicans provided a provocative backdrop.

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That the game ended in a 1-1 tie, while disappointing for many, was certainly a better outcome for Mexican fans than the prospect of a humiliating loss to their great rival.

“To defeat the United States has always been a great thing,” said Oscar Negrete, 44, an office worker who was watching the game at a restaurant in Condesa. “But today, victory is an obligation. We cannot lose.”

When the U.S. side scored the first goal just minutes into the match, many here were stunned.

“I was speechless,” said Alfonso Diaz, 33, a software programmer watching the spectacle in a Mexico City restaurant. “What a shock that was.”

Calm was restored when the Mexican side tied the score some minutes later.

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Well before the long-anticipated match began, emotions were running high in the capital, where soccer-crazed fans converged on the stadium or headed to bars, restaurants and cafes to view the game. Others planned to watch from their homes, some inviting friends and loved ones and throwing game parties.

The scene at Azteca Stadium, where the match was played, was electric.

A raucous tailgate party outside the stadium featured icy coolers of beer, vendors grilling heaps of taco meat and, this being Mexico, mariachis.

The musicians, decked out in elegant black suits and cowboy boots, played song after song for an exhilarated crowd. At one point, a singer led everyone in an improvised ditty — a clear departure from the traditional mariachi canon.

“We don’t want the wall,” fans and musicians sang together.

Trump has labeled Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers, threatened to impose a border tax on Mexican imports and make Mexico pay for construction of a border wall. He is a much-demonized figure here.

Outside the stadium, Trump’s face was emblazoned on signs and T-shirts, sometimes along with a middle finger or disparaging comment.

“He’s trying to destroy my family,” said Agustin Sanchez, 60, who wore the Trump shirt with the extended finger.

Sanchez said he lived in Sacramento for more than 30 years before he was deported to Mexico six years ago. But, like so many others here, he still has lots of relatives in the U.S.

Sunday was about soccer, he insisted, but he wore the shirt to make a point.

“It’s time to fight back,” Sanchez said.

Azteca Stadium is known as an intimidating place for visiting teams, and for their fans.

To cut down on the possibility of violence among spectators, fans for visiting teams are often directed to a swath of seats known as “the cage.”

This is a section of bleachers up in the nosebleeds that is fenced in with razor wire and guarded by about 200 police officers decked out in riot gear.

The cage is where most of the U.S. fans sat Sunday night — a speck of red, white and blue in a sea of green and red.

Even before kickoff, they traded insults with the Mexican fans on the other side of the fence. The Mexicans booed lustily when the U.S. national anthem played, and the Americans gloated when their team scored.

But when the Mexicans evened the game the stadium rose up with an ecstatic roar, many people throwing full cups of beer into the air to celebrate. Many in the crowd then turned toward the cage, some hurling slurs and raising middle fingers at the Americans.

The riot police looked on nervously.

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With about 10 minutes remaining in the match, a cold rain started to fall.

As fans scrambled to put on plastic ponchos, Alberto Medina kept watching the field. It was still 1-1.

“I’m a little frustrated that we don’t have a lead over the gringos,” he said. “We could still lose.”

Medina, 78, wanted desperately for Mexico to win — because he loved the team, and because he wanted to send a message.

“It would be a nice little swipe at Trump,” he said.

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