The rivalry between Mexico and the USA doesn’t need much extra spice but, for the first generation Mexican-Americans living north of the border, there is a big decision to be made. Dominic Bliss spoke to US soccer fan and journalist, Luis Bueno, about a dilemma that involves much more than sport…
How much does the prospect of tomorrow’s match excite you?
Speaking, not as a journalist but as a fan, this rivalry is the top thing in soccer for me. MLS is great and the US national team playing other games is great too, but everything else is below this. It is a battle every time and it doesn’t matter if it is a friendly or a qualifier – neither side wants to lose to the other.
How did you come to support the United States despite your Mexican heritage?
My parents were born in Mexico, while I was born in the United States, so I am first generation and there are a lot of people like me – first generation – that will support Mexico and they won’t support the US national team at all. That is mainly because their parents’ patriotism is pretty strong when it comes to Mexico and they try to make sure they pass their culture along to their kids – the language, the food – and part of that is soccer and the Mexican national team.
So, I would think I am in the minority, but there are more and more fans of the US within that sub-community of first generation Mexican-Americans. For us, I think it is more personal because it is a family rivalry, where the older generation supports Mexico and the younger supports the United States.
I’m not sure how familiar you are with Mexico fans in the UK, but they can be a bit arrogant, and for years they have had reason to be. They were dominant in this region for a long time and nobody else could touch them, but that started to change a bit in the mid-Nineties, when the US started to improve and Costa Rica started to get better.
Costa Rica won in Mexico in a qualifier in 2001 and, since then, it has levelled out. I think a lot of US fans – not just Mexican-Americans – see that arrogance from Mexican fans and there is a feeling, not of anger, but of, “Give us some respect.”
A lot of times we feel that the US has been disrespected because they don’t acknowledge the growth that the US national team has undergone and they don’t acknowledge that the US is a quality opponent. From Mexico’s side, they see their rivals as Argentina and Brazil – they think they are at that level, and I think that adds to the situation because we think we are their neighbours and we should be their top rivals. They do acknowledge the US as a rival, but they also like to get a piece of Argentina whenever they can.
So you grew up with parents who support Mexico…
Yeah, they have always supported Mexico and a lot of the family are die-hard Mexico supporters, who always used to tease us about the US national team. They didn’t consider us a rival, but as a nice little team, while they were the big boys. That certainly added to it on a personal level.
I know Mexican-Americans feel a loyalty to Mexico, including myself. My parents own a home in Mexico and I have lived there on two separate occasions in my life; my kids are in a dual-immersion programme, so they speak Spanish as well as English. So, for me, there is a huge influence and I really identify with the Mexican culture.
There are Mexican-American players, like Herculez Gomez, Jose Torres, Edgar Castillo, who are US internationals, and that side of it is just going to keep making this rivalry grow. There are a lot of kids who will have to choose who to play for once they get older.
What was it like for you once the pendulum started swinging towards the USA?
When I was younger, in the mid-Nineties, the US couldn’t compete with Mexico. Then we tied 0-0 there in a qualifier in 1997 and that was really exciting because they always bragged about the Azteca and we shut them out there.
But, of course, nothing will ever top the moment in the World Cup 2002, when the US beat Mexico 2-0 in the Round of 16. That was a singularly fantastic moment for US soccer fans.
The American soccer magazine, Howler, designed their first cover around the fact that the United States had won away to Mexico, even though it was only a friendly! Having said that, depicting Jurgen Klinsmann in an Apocalypse Now scenario was worth the hyperbole…
I haven’t seen that, but I can definitely see why it made the cover. The Azteca is where US teams go to die, basically. Historically, all teams have struggled there – Jamaica has had six-goal and four-goal losses there – and the Mexican fans draw so much confidence from playing in that stadium. They have such a swagger there and the feeling that nothing can go wrong, and before winning that friendly last year, the best the US had was the 0-0 draw in 1997.
The smog, the altitude and the fact that you are playing against a really good team in front of 100,000-plus fans has such an impact.
The 1993 Gold Cup Final was played down there and Mexico beat the USA 4-0 – it was like a Mexican hat-dance as they just had their way with the US team. They always hark back to that, but this last friendly was a great moment because the US did what many thought couldn’t be done. Some people are trying to write it off as “just a friendly”, but this week they are going to play there again in a qualifier and it is going to give the US confidence to know now that they can win there, because they have won there.
Have you been to a game at the Azteca between these two sides?
In 2009, I went down there for the qualifier and the US scored really early, but Mexico tied it up in the end with an 82nd-minute winner. For most of the second half I was thinking, “Can they actually get the draw here?”
Then they got the goal and I realised that it can’t happen! That was always the impenetrable wall, but now it has been taken down and that is going to add a lot of spice to this match.
What makes the rivalry so fierce?
They are neighbours and there is so much Mexican influence in the United States now. The Mexican national team can come and play in any number of US cities and draw 60-70,000 people. Just seeing that great support here, and how lacking the support for the United States is by comparison, makes you feel that the US soccer fans might have a chip on their shoulder. They are thinking, “We want that sport for us” and the team here is becoming more successful.
The Mexican fans get it – they get what the US fans want and, like the situation for myself, you get a lot of families where the older generations support Mexico and the younger generations support the US. That leads to trash-talking, making bets and taunting – it can get pretty heated.
There are ‘Ultra’ sections among many MLS sides, so do the US fans make themselves heard in the stadium during games against Mexico?
The atmosphere is great. I was at the Gold Cup Final in 2011, at the Rose Bowl, Pasadena, where Mexico won 4-2. There was a little over 93,000 people there and I would say 10-15 per cent were US fans. The problem for US fans, in that kind of setting, is that they are outnumbered.
What if they played Mexico in Seattle, for example, where US soccer fans are more prevalent?
There is a lot of backlash against playing there because they use an artificial surface and I think US soccer wants to avoid that, but I think that would be great. Even in Portland, where they can only get 18,000 in, I like to think that, like Seattle, you would get a majority of US fans. It might only be like 60-40, but I think you would see a majority and that is something this rivalry hasn’t seen.
US fans and players have said since 2002 that, if they played Mexico anywhere outside of Mexico, the US will win. They proved that in the World Cup, but when they play here the US team has all the comforts of home, until they get to the stadium, where it’s full of Mexican fans. It’s the Azteca without the altitude and the smog!
- Read how the rivalry with the USA has grown into something important in Mexico, as Guadalajara-based journalist, Tom Marshall discusses the history of the fixture with TheInsideLeft here.