When it comes to US-Mexico relations, Mexico hasn’t exactly been on equal footing recently.
Experts in the US have said Mexico is at risk of becoming a “failed state,” the US government has warned American travelers to avoid parts of Mexico because of drug violence, and the American recession has dragged Mexico down with it – to the point that Mexico’s economy is expected to shrink more than it did during its devastating “Tequila crisis” of 1995.
And forget about long-awaited immigration reform here.
So its win against the US here Wednesday in a World Cup qualifier was more than just a step closer to the finals next year. The 2-1 defeat saved face – stealing a chance for the US to take home its first win at the famed Azteca Stadium and vindicating Mexico from a list of grievances brought on by its dominating northerly neighbor.
“For many people, soccer is maybe one of the few things that we can do better than the Americans,” says Ramon Raya, a soccer columnist in Mexico and former professional player.
Mexico’s cantinas were filled with fans, who worked extra hours yesterday to take off early and catch the afternoon game. Cheers erupted from bars and restaurants as Mexico put in its final goal, late into the second half of the game.
Halfway through the qualifying stage, the outcome was more crucial for the Mexican team, which was fourth in the six-team World Cup qualifying group. Only the top three teams are guaranteed automatic qualification to next year's World Cup in South Africa. The win put Mexico in third place, pending two other games later Wednesday night. The US remained in second place despite the result.
Regardless of tournament technicalities, any game between the US and Mexico is fierce. “Loser! Loser!” yelled Felipe Vazquez, a graphic designer in Mexico, joking with an American visitor. “The US is our most detested rival,” he explains, especially since the US has gained stature in the soccer world in the past decade. “For 100 years we were No. 1 in this region.”
Mexico had long played the Goliath in the relationship, not surprising for a country where soccer games rule social lives and newspapers dedicate entire inserts to single games – while the same match might get just passing notice in the US press. Wednesday's match, for instance, was broadcast in the US only on Telemundo, a Spanish-language channel.
A turning point on the field came during the 2002 World Cup, when the US knocked Mexico out in the round of 16, 2-0. And while signs, newspaper articles, and Mexicans on the street declare with full confidence that Mexico is the superior team, since 2000 the US team leads head-to head matchups with nine wins, four losses, and two draws.
If someone were not paying attention to the US’s rise overall, June’s Confederation Cup in South Africa was a wake-up: the US beat Spain, the world’s top-ranked team at the time, finishing second behind Brazil.
“Many want to believe that we are the better team, but we are not, no matter the outcome today,” says Flavio Pedroza, walking toward the stadium ahead of game time, past drivers – and one entire bus – decked out in green, the Mexican team color, and cars draped lovingly with the Mexican flag.
In terms of external factors, the odds were stacked against the US, as the game played on in pollution and dizzying heights, at an attitude of 7,400 feet. Not to mention that the venue, the 105,000-seat Azteca Stadium, where the US team has never beaten Mexico. In fact, the US has never won anywhere in Mexico. Since 1937, it has lost 23 times and tied once.
The significance of victory or defeat between Mexico and the US spreads well beyond the soccer pitch, sometimes creating a potent mix of sport and politics that has often veered toward the unsportsmanlike. In 2005 in Mexico, Mexican fans chanted “Osama!” over and over again, in reference to Al Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden.
“Losing to the States has become for many people the worst thing that could happen to Mexico,” says Mr. Raya. “Because of all the problems we have with the US, like immigration, it becomes much more than a soccer game.”