Reminiscing About the US vs. Mexico Soccer Rivalry and What It Means to Me
Recently, I watched the CONCACAF Nations League final between the United States and Mexico. I haven’t watched much soccer in the past year, mostly because of the pandemic. A soccer match without fans isn’t especially appealing to me, unless one of the teams I follow is competing for an important title. In all honesty, I wasn’t familiar with this particular competition, as it’s still quite new. Nonetheless, the US vs. Mexico matches hold a special interest for me because of what they represent.
As I watched this particular game, which was played on June 6, memories came flooding into my mind. In the summer of 2002, I was studying abroad in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico at the Universidad Veracruzana. By that time, I was already a soccer aficionado, having spent time studying in Madrid, where I became a fanático of Real Madrid. I had also followed the American national team, but I didn’t watch too much soccer from Mexico. It’s not that I didn’t try to appreciate Mexican soccer. On the contrary, I watched a lot of games on Univisión. I’ve always considered Mexican soccer to be a bit on the slow side, with lots of passes required for a team to move the ball from one side of the field to another, as opposed to English soccer, for example, in which teams typically use long passes and straight-ahead speed to advance the ball towards goal in seemingly a few short seconds. Besides the style of play, I also bought in to some of the stereotypes of Mexican soccer players, who are often criticized for embellishing fouls, faking injuries, starting conflicts, and blaming everyone (like referees) and everything (like bad weather and long grass) for their own failures. Mexican fans are also known for yelling “¡Putoooooo!” when the opposing goalie takes a goal kick, which always seemed like it was in poor taste to me. Conspiracy theories abound when the national team loses to a rival like the United States; “The referees were paid off,” I remember hearing people say. These were my impressions of Mexican soccer at the time.
Soccer aficionados may remember that 2002 was the year of the World Cup in host countries South Korea and Japan. On June 17th of that year, the US and Mexico would play in the knockout stage of the competition, also known as the Round of 16, with the winner advancing to the quarterfinals. As I recall, that day was my first full day in Mexico. A new friend I had met earlier that day, Román, invited me and my roommate, also named Dan, to watch the game at a party. It was raining a bit that night, as summer is the rainy season in Xalapa, so I almost didn’t go out. I really did want to watch the game, however, and I couldn’t spend my first night in Xalapa at home.
The party itself was a really nice gathering of people. There were American and Mexican students in attendance, and I was surprised that even the vast majority of Americans were rooting for Mexico to win. I remember not really understanding why these compatriots would want their rivals to win the game. Historically, Mexico is a far superior team than the United States, although there have been stretches of time when the Americans not only put up a good fight, but even would beat the Mexicans in important competitions. I’m not an especially patriotic person, but I tend to cheer for the United States when they play in the World Cup, at least. The United States tends to be underdogs in big competitions, which is another thing that makes me root for them. Although times are changing fast, Americans tended to ignore soccer, in general, even during the World Cup. My guess is that my fellow American students at the party really didn’t care about the sport, and so they cheered for their hosts, which I guess makes sense. At any rate, Dan and I were perhaps the only two people at the party who wanted the United States to win, or we were at least the only ones who were vocal about it. And the other Dan, I should mention, didn’t really care that much about the result of the match; he was a college football player and tended to have an indifferent if not negative attitude towards soccer.
Before the match started, Dan and I sat down on a couch in a prime location, right in front of the screen. To our left sat two Mexican women, Dulce and Margarita. We conversed with them throughout the match. They were very friendly and talkative. They also shared with us that they had boyfriends, so there was no pressure to flirt or impress them or act in a way that we wouldn’t otherwise. Nobody yelled anything offensive directed at any Americans. We cheered for our teams playfully and respectfully. The US would win, 2-0. I tried not to gloat. I’m not sure how successful I was. At any rate, that game would be a conversation starter for me and many of the Mexicans I would meet during that trip.
Over time, Román would invite me to play pick-up soccer games, which was always great fun, even though I’m not a good player. Dulce would play, too, and we would start to spend more time together. She and her boyfriend broke up that summer. I had absolutely nothing to do with it. I appreciated Mexican soccer more and more and went home with a few Mexican soccer jerseys, which would be some of my favorite souvenirs. Now, of course, Dulce and I are married, and I don’t usually care who wins these clásicos when they’re played. I just hope that they’re competitive games, and spirited without insults or fights. When I was in graduate school at UCLA, I had one student who played on the women’s soccer team as well as the Mexican national team. In the same class that she was in, I had another Mexican student who was part of the youth academy of Chivas USA, which was an MLS team. They were excellent students and wonderful people. I was proud to watch them play and say that they were my students!
Unfortunately, politics have influenced the Mexico/US rivalry, just as it has created and intensified rivalries in other parts of the world. The fan bases of both teams really want their team to win these matches. They tend to be even more pleased if the other side is humiliated, which is a shame. Hopefully more of us will stand up and show respect to our brothers, no matter what color their shirt is. My children are half-Mexican, and I hope that they can embrace what’s good about both cultures and stand arm-in-arm with people on both sides of the border, making bridges, not walls, as they say. Fútbol can certainly be a bridge, if we don’t let politics and our prejudices ruin it.
Did you watch the clásico? Let us know what you thought about it and who you were rooting for in the comments below.
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