A saying attributed to Porfirio Diaz, a former president of Mexico, sums up one attitude toward that nation’s northern neighbor:
Pobre Mexico! Tan lejos de Dios, y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos.
Poor Mexico. So far from God, and so close to the United States.
In soccer, however, Mexico holds the edge. They’ve beaten the U.S. about twice as often as they’ve lost. Since the 1990s, the teams have been more evenly matched, and U.S. vs. Mexico has become an increasingly passionate and contentious rivalry.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Men’s Soccer Team will face Mexico at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City in a World Cup qualifier.
On Aug. 15, 2012, the U.S. team made the same trip for a so-called “friendly,” a game meant to be without consequences. Robert Andrew Powell was one of the very few North Americans in attendance. He was recording his impressions for HowlerMagazine.com, a website devoted to soccer. Powell knew what he was in for.
“It’s our enemy, you know,” Powell said. “It’s the team that we hate, and that we’re competitive with.
“So I go into the Azteca, right before kickoff, up to the sequestered U.S. section, way in an upper balcony, in a corner. It’s a small area or bleachers surrounded by a chain-link fence, topped with barbed wire, and all around the fence on every side is a row of riot police.”
Powell found he was not completely alone. One of the other North Americans he encountered had not intended to watch the game from a cage in the company of armed security guards. He’d entered the stadium with the Mexican fans, and he’d been wearing a U.S. jersey when he did it, and he’d been carrying a U.S. flag. But not for long.
“Everybody started attacking him,” Powell recalled. “They took his flag, they tried to rip his jersey, and so the police actually moved him up into the sequestered U.S. section for his own safety.”
That safety might have been assured, no problem, but for what happened with 80 minutes gone in the game:
Announcer: And the U.S.A. do have the lead! And it’s [Michael] Orozco Fiscal! Can you believe that? It was poked in over the line with 11 minutes to go. What about that!?
“After the U.S. scored, these Mexican people that I love so much didn’t really return the love as much as I had hoped, and they got really hostile,” Powell said. “We were just getting pelted with beer, and pelted with cups, and anything. And the fans were rushing down to the chain-link fence and just swearing at us, you know. One guy asked me to go outside to fight. I was like, we were outside already.
“With five minutes left on the clock, they ordered all the American fans out,” Powell said. “They set up — I don’t know what you would call it — a blockade, like lines of police to march the Americans out of the stadium before the game ended, just for the safety of the Americans.”
But Powell had a story, and wasn’t going to let it go.
“Estoy prensa! Senor, estoy prensa.” [I’m press! Sir, I’m press.]
“You know, I flexed my magical press credential and got out of the blockade, and went over to the press box, which is outside,” Powell said. “We weren’t allowed to watch the end of the game, which is great – that’s never happened before.”
With the final whistle, the boos were deafening.
“The U.S. had never, ever won in Mexico, much less in Estadio Azteca,” Powell said. “And it didn’t seem like we ever could win in Estadio Azteca, and we did.”
Whether the U.S. can win again at Azteca on Tuesday, when the result will either help or hinder the team’s World Cup hopes, remains to be seen.