August 17, 2009


Sporting emotions at the highest pitch: Trip to Mexico for World Cup qualifier simply unforgettable (Bill Simmons, 8/17/09, ESPN)

My trip to Mexico quickly morphed into one of those "I'm going to remember everything that happened 40 years from now." I stood on the field at Azteca, grabbed a few strands of grass and put them in my wallet. I rode in SUVs with bulletproof windows and security guards. I asked a hotel concierge if there was a good place to get coffee, followed by him pointing me toward a Starbucks to our left, then saying, "Whatever you do, don't go right." I got trapped in one of Azteca's oppressively hot elevators and saw my life briefly flash before my eyes. I watched one of my bosses get nailed by a flying burrito after the game. I drank enough tequila to kill Salma Hayek. I got rocked by Montezuma's revenge on the way home, which was strange because I am absolutely positive I have never done anything to Montezuma.

None of those memories matched the game. The Americans were a sterling 0-22-1 in Mexico before Wednesday's match ... and with reason. The stands hug the field, shoot straight up and couldn't be more intimidating, especially in the corners, where fans shower opponents with beers, sodas and LTYDEWTKWTA (Liquids That You Don't Even Want To Know What They Are) on every corner kick. The lower section of the stadium is fenced, with a guarded, waterless moat (seriously, a moat!) with a second fence above it that prevent fans from racing onto the field. Atop the stadium, an uneven half-roof leads to eerie shadows and goofy lighting that seem to change by the minute.

Opponents never feel safe. Inside the bowels of the stadium, the players walk down a concrete tunnel that feels like it was built in 1362. Emerge from the tunnel, and Mexican fans are suddenly right there, wearing green jerseys, yelling obscenities and pounding the fence in front of them. The venom starts immediately -- booing and hissing, horn blowing, various "Meh-hee-CO! Meh-hee CO!" chants -- and never really stops. The Mexican fans had no problem drowning out the Star-Spangled Banner with jeers. They tossed drinks and debris at the U.S. bench for most of the second half ... which didn't matter because Azteca's opposing bench has an impenetrable plexiglass roof, but still. During a corner kick in extra time, they showered Landon Donovan with such a staggering amount of debris that he briefly staggered back toward the field in disbelief, shrugging his hands as if to say, "How could anyone act like this?"

You can't even call it just a hostile environment; it's more primal than anything. I have only attended two other games in which the crowd's collective loathing was palpable -- Game 6 of the 1986 NBA Finals (Boston fans heaping hatred on Ralph Sampson, who had punched two Celtics in the previous game) and Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern finals (the same treatment for Bill Laimbeer, who had decked Larry Bird the previous game) -- and neither approached USA-Mexico. Michael Vick could crash a PETA rally and get a friendlier reception than the Americans did at Azteca.

On the worst days in Mexico City, opponents deal with high altitude, intense heat and oppressive smog that makes their lungs burn. (The famous Azteca story that sounds like an urban legend but is actually true: Eric Wynalda once coughed up black blood after a game there.) Mexico passed up a more lucrative prime-time telecast for a mid-afternoon start, hoping humidity, altitude and pollution would wear the Americans down. Nope. The weather settled in the mid-70s. There was a breeze. The skies were so clear you could glimpse the mountains. The U.S. team will never have better conditions for a game in Mexico City.

Normally with international soccer games (especially Cup qualifiers), a few sections are reserved for the opposing team's fans. Not in Azteca. The U.S. was allotted about 500 seats for Sam's Army (a traveling band of American fans); they were crammed in the upper deck in one corner with armed police officers flanking both aisles. Fans tossed drinks, batteries and rocks at them, then berated them in Spanish, which wasn't a surprise because this was "Throw Drinks, Batteries and Rocks at American Fans and Berate Them in Spanish" Day. According to one account by a photographer who attended the game, Sam's Army was advised to flee the premises immediately after the final whistle. You know, just to be safe.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 17, 2009 2:26 PM
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