United States hasn't prevailed in Mexico City since Ulysses S. Grant
and Robert E. Lee fought alongside each other to vanquish Santa Ana,
but the American soccer team will try again today as it takes on the
Mexican national team in a key World Cup qualifying match in Azteca
Stadium. Despite how fiercely competitive the U.S.-Mexico soccer
rivalry has become in the last two decades, the Americans have never
won in Mexico City.
For many Angelenos, today's game, though
played south of the border, is a source of anxiety and soul-searching
about identity amid conflicting loyalties. And for many other Angelenos
who don't share in that conflicted anxiety—and may not even care
about the sport itself—the sight of Mexican immigrants in Los
Angeles waving the Mexican flag or cheering on El Tricolor (as Mexico's
national team is affectionately called) is Exhibit A of how these new
Americans aren't quite assimilating in the same way that previous waves
of immigrants did.
Sometimes I wonder if Washington's efforts to
enact comprehensive immigration reform a few years back might have
succeeded if God hadn't invented soccer. The heated soccer rivalry
between neighbors is the gift that keeps on giving for anti-immigration
crusaders. What's particularly troubling to this crowd is that because
of the rising number of Latinos in the U.S.—and the demographics of
the soccer fan base—the Mexican team enjoys home-field advantage
when playing against the U.S. in either country (the Americans forced
Mexico to play the last World Cup qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, in
February in an apparent effort to minimize the number of Mexican fans
in the stands).
Early on in his 2004 book, "Who Are We?"
Samuel Huntington contrasted the scene at a 1998 U.S.-Mexico match in
Los Angeles—91,255 fans "immersed in a sea of red, white and green"
flags cheering on Mexico—with past immigrants "who wept with joy
when, after overcoming hardship and risk, they saw the Statue of
Liberty [and] enthusiastically identified themselves with their new
country that offered them liberty, work and hope... ." You get the idea.
I say. If an Irish team had come to play the United States in Boston or
New York a century ago, I'm guessing the stands would have been awash
I have to confess I am part of the "problem"
here. If Mexico and the United States go to war again, I'll be rooting
for the Yanks, but having lived in Mexico until the age of 15, I still
have a hard time not rooting for Mexico when the two countries play,
given that my boyhood soccer loyalties are all rooted in that country
and its league. It is very hard—a bit sketchy even—to alter your
sports loyalties later in life, as any transplanted Bostonian or
Chicagoan in L.A. will tell you.
There is an additional
dynamic at play, a matter of sheer equity, when it comes to soccer.
This sport is everything to Mexico, while on this side of the border
hundreds of millions of Americans today will go about their business
unaware that the two countries are even playing. This is what is
galling to the rest of the world, not just Mexico, about the rise of
the United States in soccer—it is happening without most Americans
being emotionally invested in the sport.
In terms of the
Mexico-U.S. rivalry, the fact that Mexico's all-consuming obsession
with today's game is unrequited is symbolic of the larger relationship
between the two neighbors. President Obama was in Mexico earlier this
week for the annual summit with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts
("Hey, remember us, your neighbors and trading partners?"), a
perfunctory gathering devoid of any of the buzz, friction or hope
attached to summit meetings with countries that, well, matter in the pantheon of American diplomacy.
I was a kid in Mexico, there wasn't much of a rivalry between the two
countries on the soccer pitch; Mexico reliably clobbered the United
States, which for most Mexicans helped make up for everything else. The
American national team didn't beat its Mexican counterpart between 1934
But in recent years, as soccer has taken off as a
youth sport in the U.S. and with the advent of Major League Soccer—two developments that have produced a generation of far more talented
players in this country—the Americans have gained the upper hand in
the struggle for regional supremacy. Mexicans feel deprived of the one
contest in which they could vanquish the superpower to the north. An
unprecedented win in Mexico City today would ratify American supremacy
and jeopardize Mexico's attendance at next year's World Cup in South
Africa (only three, possibly four, countries from Central and North
America will qualify, and Mexico has already suffered upsets to Central
My brother and I have had numerous arguments
on who the real underdog is in this rivalry. My sympathies are with
Mexico, taking a broader "it's all they've got" view. Roberto, looking
at it more from a narrow soccer perspective, feels the scrappy American
team is still the underdog, overtaking what was once the undisputed
regional soccer hegemon. Indeed, one of the ironies of the American
ascent in the soccer world is that it may be partly because of the
relative poverty of the domestic market. The fledgling MLS can't afford
to retain many of the top American players, who instead play in more
competitive European leagues, which makes them a more formidable
all-star squad when they come together to play under the U.S. flag (the
national team, like our Olympic "dream team" in basketball, is
essentially an all-star team of players whose day jobs are with club
teams such as the L.A. Galaxy or clubs in Britain).
league, by contrast, is one of the richest in the world outside of
Europe, meaning fewer of its players feel the need to play overseas and
become accustomed to the faster-paced game the American players are
competing in overseas.
There's an interesting economic parable in there somewhere too, but I digress.
It's only a game, after all. Really.