By Charles Boehm – PLAYA DEL CARMEN, MEXICO (Apr 12, 2012) US Soccer Players – It is a great testament to the love and patience of my better half that in the week leading up to a long-planned, long-awaited trip to the Yucatan coast, she consented to my addition of a Mexican soccer match to our itinerary.
Atlante FC and Cruz Azul had just advanced to the championship final of Copa MX, the country’s open cup competition. The Mexican federation awarded Cancun-based Atlante hosting rights despite their cellar-dwelling position in the Liga MX (first division) standings, so the game would take place at Estadio Olimpico Andres Quintana Roo. Less than an hour’s drive east of our hotel here, it presented an opportunity that seemed too good to pass up.
The evening proved to be a memorable experience, one which hammered away at many of the preconceived notions about Mexican soccer I – and I suspect many other US-based soccer watchers – have carried for years. In fact, I will leave Mexico convinced that we have far more in common with our southern neighbors than we admit.
Of course, soccer occupies a far more dominant position on the Mexican sporting landscape than it does in the US. Yet it still must compete with a variety of other attractions. The domestic game finds itself in constant danger of being overshadowed by the glamorous UEFA Champions League and other European competitions aggressively promoted by ESPN, FOX Sports and other familiar outlets. A rich punditry culture and 24-hour sports news cycle magnifies problems and shortcomings, while also stoking the high expectations of a growing, forward-looking nation eager to stake its claim on the world stage by ascending to the “next level” without being totally sure exactly what that looks like.
Copa MX is in many ways a close cousin to the USA’s much praised but chronically underappreciated US Open Cup. It struggles to draw the respect and attention that league play does. Mexico didn’t even stage the cup tournament for over a decade. It was resuscitated and rebranded last year as part of the new Liga MX.
An Atlante match may not be the nation’s prototypical game day environment. The club has often struggled to draw fans both before and after its owner, wealthy business kingpin Alejandro Burillo, relocated it – an American-inspired gambit that should be eminently familiar to Stateside observers – from Mexico City to Cancun in hopes of tapping into the resort town’s rapid growth. Featuring a running track and lacking luxury suites of any kind, Estadio Andres is an old, outmoded multi-sport facility never designed with top-flight pro soccer in mind. The club gave away tickets for last weekend’s league match in hopes of filling the stands.
You’d never have guessed that on Wednesday. Deep cup runs inspire both players and supporters, and Cruz Azul’s massive fan base – combined with the fact that many Mexicans have migrated to the Yucatan from other regions in search of economic opportunity (think Florida or Las Vegas) – drew a sellout crowd. Atlante supporters found themselves outnumbered in their own house in much the same fashion as the US National Team have previously encountered when playing Mexico in Southern California or Texas.
We found ourselves adrift in a teeming sea of bodies outside the stadium, haggling with secondhand ticket sellers demanding prices 10 or more times face value – and with so many ticket holders still in line to enter the compact (20,000-capacity) venue, there were clearly some counterfeit boletas on the market. Thankfully, one of the event’s sound technicians took pity on us, trading his extra VIP pass for two general admission tickets from a nearby fan and kindly guiding us to our destination: the concrete terraces behind one of the goals, adjacent to Atlante’s small but committed section of singing, drumming ultras.
Those seeking details of the match, a tight, tense affair eventually decided by penalties, can find superior coverage and analysis elsewhere. What stayed with me most was the similarity to matches I’ve attended back home. There was diversity in the crowd – in equal measure by bellowing blue-collar men, prim abuelas and wide-eyed children just as interested in french fries and fizzy soft drinks as the action on the field.
Several players did their best to draw the attention of their national team coach with impressive displays in the nationally televised game. The next day, Mexican National Team manager Chepo de la Torre duly called up four Cruz Azul standouts for this month’s friendly against Peru in Northern California, with goalkeeper Jesus Corona and veteran holding midfielder Gerardo Torrado particularly distinguished in Cancun.
A language and a contentious history of rivalry, racism and xenophobia works to divide us. But both Mexico and the US bear the same ambitions, and the same mixed blessing of footballing geography. Giants in the small sphere of CONCACAF, we benefit from an unbalanced race to World Cup qualification but must look across wide seas for advanced comparison, competition and improvement. The list of Mexican stars successfully employed in the planet’s elite club competitions is only moderately longer than that of US Soccer’s, and both countries eagerly follow their exploits in search of pride as well as validation of the methods used back home.
While we wait for the inspiration of the next breakthrough on that world stage, we fret over our developmental structures and fend off the small but capable nations to the south. We have little choice but to compare ourselves to one another, further fueling a border rivalry that, like so many of the world’s best, is really as much about what we share as where we differ.
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