Mexico aims for soccer redemption

When the United States beat Mexico's men's soccer team at the 2002 World Cup, for Mexican fans it was David slaying their Goliath, Buster Douglas knocking out their Mike Tyson, the archrival Red Sox toppling their Yankees.

In its long soccer history, Mexico has a robust 28-11-10 record against the US side. In 22 games played south of the border, the best the US could do was squeak out a lone tie.

But the 2002 loss in Seoul, South Korea - a heated affair that featured 10 yellow cards, controversial calls by the referees, and a 2-0 US victory - confirmed a turned tide. Over the past eight contests, the US is 6-1-1 vs. the Tricolores. In this soccer-mad nation, where a win over its northern neighbor can help soothe the injustices of a century and a half of US-Mexican history, that's more than a rough patch; it's an assault on the psyche.

Now it's payback time. On Sunday, Mexico hopes to restore its bruised soccer pride - and even a sense of national honor - when the US team arrives to play a 2006 World Cup qualifier at Azteca Stadium. Oscar Perez, goalie in the Seoul match that elim- inated the Mexican side, knows he can't undo what happened in South Korea. "But we are here to do it again now. And better," he said driving into the first day of practice earlier this week. "Our revenge is starting."

Azteca Stadium sits at7,300 feet above sea level, where the smog blankets the city. Mexico has rarely lost a match here; the last time it did, against Costa Rica in 2002, the coach resigned less than a week later. The US is 0-7-1 on this pitch. Some 110,000 screaming fans are expected to be on hand for the match, enduring the searing noontime sun. Based on recent history, it could make Yankees-Red Sox games look like a Waltons family reunion.

"The conditions are all right, and [Mexican coach Ricardo] Lavolpe has molded a fresh, young team," says sports commentator Salvador Aguilera. "We feel in our bones that this long awaited game is ours."

The origins of this intense rivalry, explains fan Gerardo Gonzales, are historical - and he is not talking soccer history.

"Every schoolboy knows about 1848," he says, settling in for a lazy afternoon of serious soccer talk at a local cantina. "When they robbed our territory," referring to when Texas, California, and New Mexico were annexed to the US at the as part of a peace treaty ending the war between the two countries, "that was the beginning."

Coupled with the fact that tens of thousands of Mexicans leave the country every day for the greener economic pastures north of the Rio Grande, and the game becomes about saving face. "Football is our only equal playing field where we can show 'em," Mr. Gonzales says.

Many team members share this inferiority complex, says Mr. Aguilera, who has traveled with the national team for the past decade as the soccer correspondent for the country's leading sports paper, Esto. "When we go to Honduras or El Salvador, the media is there and we get an escort to the hotel," he says. "When we come to the US there are always problems and delays at immigration. They have no idea who we are."

On several occasions, he says, Jesus Arellano, a midfielder who shares a last name with notorious jailed drug trafficker Felix Arellano, has been taken in for questioning by immigration officers at US airports. "There is no respect," says Aguilera, shaking his head.

Mexican fans have countered these perceived swipes with their own wallops of disrespect, leading to nasty run-ins on match day. US players have been pelted with beer bottles, batteries, and racial epithets, which led to the US Soccer Federation to send a letter of complaint to its Mexican counterpart last year after an Olympic qualifier in Guadalajara. During that February match, boos almost drowned out the singing of the Stars and Stripes, a US flag was burned, and several fans chanted "Osama, Osama," as the Americans left the field.

This time around, says Aguilera, the Mexicans are aiming their ire at US player Landon Donovan, who scored the second goal in Korea, and who also urinated on a practice field in Guadalajara. National TV picked up his transgression, and Mexicans went ballistic. "It said everything about US treatment of Mexicans," says Aguilera. "Let's just say, people are not pleased to see him."

Sunday's game will be the second of 10 qualifiers, with the top three teams in the six-team North and Central American CONCACAF region advancing to next year's World Cup in Germany. Win or lose, both the US and Mexico are expected to advance, along with Costa Rica.

For the US, which is on a 16-match unbeaten streak, victory here would be sweet. More important, however, it would indicate how far the Americans have come since starting a national team more than 50 years after Mexico.

But most of the fanaticism still resides south of the border.

"There is an interesting twist to the rivalry," says Franklin Foer, author of "How Soccer Explains the World." "Mexico has so much more emotionally invested in these games than the US. If Mexico wins, it's a major national event. If the US wins, it hardly creates a ripple back home. That makes US wins so much more painful for Mexico. It serves to highlight how little attention the US pays to its neighbor."

Popular striker Francisco "Kikin" Fonseca sees it otherwise. "Soccer is in our blood," he says. Mexico wants to prove something to America, "but, we win for ourselves. That is satisfaction enough."

Ms. Harman is Latin America bureau chief for The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today.

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