This story originally appeared in the March 28, 2005, edition of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. You can subscribe to the magazine here.
Landon Donovan doesn't know what's coming this Sunday. He can't know. Not until you've played for the U.S. at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City can you understand what it's like to face your nation's most bitter soccer rival in that 115,000-seat caldron, a place where the Americans have never won a game.
U.S. veterans of the Azteca speak in evocative terms about sensory overload. The sound of the hostile fans? "Like playing inside a beehive," says midfielder Cobi Jones.
The towering, almost vertical grandstands? "Like Mad Max's Thunderdome," says retired defender Alexi Lalas.
The choking smog and 7,200-foot altitude? "I once saw Cobi cough up something that looked like a brownie," says former forward Eric Wynalda. "It's like never smoking your whole life, then being told to smoke a pack of cigarettes and try to function normally. You get sick."
The Yanks will get another taste of the Azteca–site of Pelé's exploits in the 1970 World Cup and Diego Maradona's in '86–when they face Mexico during the final stage of World Cup qualifying. Each side won its first of 10 qualifiers, placing them at the top of the six-team group from North and Central America and the Caribbean. Only three of those teams are assured a berth next year in Germany. Donovan, the 23-year-old U.S. captain, is preparing for the worst.
"I've never played in front of 100,000," he says. "From what I hear, every condition you can imagine is as bad as it gets: the crowd, the noise, the altitude, the smog, the field, the heat. That's what Mexico counts on, and you have to take it out of play."
So debilitating are conditions at the Azteca, says U.S. Soccer Federation executive vice president Sunil Gulati, that the USSF has tried to strike a deal with its Mexican counterpart on the sites for their home-and-home World Cup qualifiers: If you host your game in some other city–say, low-altitude Monterrey–we'll stage ours in heavily Hispanic Los Angeles, where Mexico's supporters normally outnumber U.S. fans by a factor of 10. The Tricolores have never accepted, prompting the USSF to schedule two straight qualifiers with Mexico during frigid weather in Columbus, Ohio. Mexican journos dubbed the most recent one, a 2-0 U.S. victory on a 29-degree day in February 2001, La Guerra Fría. The Cold War.
That's typical for the most heated international rivalry in North American sports. Since 1934 the U.S. and Mexico have clashed 49 times on the soccer pitch, and though the Mexicans have dominated the series, 28-11-10, the Yanks have gained the upper hand in recent years with six wins in the last eight matches. Their most stunning victory came at the 2002 World Cup in Jeonju, South Korea: With the stakes the highest and the stage the largest, the U.S. eliminated Mexico 2-0 in the second round. For Mexican-Americans whose fútbol loyalty lies with their native land, the agony of that loss remains vividly painful.
"I have cried three times in my life," said Regelio Ruiz, a 36-year-old used-car salesman from Las Vegas, while attending a Mexico-Argentina game in L.A. this month. "That day was one of them."
As with any worthwhile rivalry, U.S.-Mexico has had its excruciating moments. Like the time in 1997 when Mexico's Ramón Ramirez karate-kicked Lalas in the groin ("a full-frontal assault on my manhood," as the recipient put it).
Or the manifold occasions on which Wynalda lashed out at Mexico fans in the U.S. "("The more people I had rooting against me," he says, "the more people I flipped off.") Or the 2004 Olympic qualifying tournament in Guadalajara, when the crowd chanted, "Osama, Osama." Or that epic '02 World Cup match, during which, Donovan says, Mexican forward Luis Hernández turned to him after an on-field tangle and snarled, "I will find your mother and kill her."
"To say things like that is pretty evil," Donovan says. "I'm sure it's something he's forgotten, but I never will."
Though the Tricolores don't deny the intensity of the competition, not all of them take it personally. "The U.S. has grown so much in its soccer, because it has a league now and many players in Europe," says longtime Mexico goalkeeper Jorge Campos, now a national team assistant coach. "But that doesn't mean we hate the Americans. Cobi Jones is a very good friend of mine."
Yet much more than soccer fuels many Mexican fans' animus toward the U.S. team, says Rodolfo de la Garza, a Columbia professor who specializes in immigration studies.
"There are very few instances in the history of the two countries where Mexico has either been dealt with fairly or has won when there were differences," he explains. "Central to Mexican nationalism is anti-Americanism. The U.S. invaded Mexico on various occasions, and by their judgment the Mexicans lost half their land. There's a built-in structure of resentment, a built-in rivalry.
"Mexicans have one big sport. They invest completely in it, and it is deeply resented that the U.S. beat them at the World Cup. That sticks in their craw. It should be their game. But the power and the money of the U.S. has denied them even that."
Maybe so, but if you're an American soccer player, it's hard to see yourself as the hegemonic power when the whistling and booing is directed at you in, for instance, L.A.
Says Lalas, "There were times I'd get off the field and think, The thousands of people who just cheered against their national team have reaped the incredible benefits of coming to the U.S., and yet they don't recognize that the team in red, white and blue is much more representative of their lives than the team they're cheering for. We've had players from all different ethnicities, so we really represent what this country is about."
The U.S.'s recent domination has led to extensive soul-searching in the Mexican soccer community–as well as numerous theories to explain the change in fortunes. "For me it's easy," says Javier Aguirre, who coached Mexico's 2002 World Cup team and now runs Osasuna in Spain's La Liga. "In the last 10 years the Americans have had 30 to 40 players in Europe. We have two or three players in Europe, and that is the great difference. Mexico doesn't have that type of competition."
In other words, the comfort of staying at home and playing in the relatively lucrative (but insular) Mexican Football League might be stunting the Tricolores' development as soccer players. (Though that doesn't account for the fact that three of the four U.S. goal scorers in World Cup 2002 represented the supposedly inferior MLS.)
Martín Vasquez, a Mexican-American and the only player ever to compete for both countries, says the rise of U.S. soccer is tied to the type of players being drawn to the sport these days, ones who might once have chosen baseball, basketball or football. "In Mexico maybe some of the players are more gifted," says Vasquez, who's now an assistant for the MLS team Chivas USA, "but I think the American players are catching up because they have something the Mexican players don't have: athleticism."
Yet perhaps the most fascinating explanation is that the Tricolores have somehow lost the confidence they once had when facing their northern neighbor. Rare is the discussion that doesn't included the word mentalidad. "I think it's a psychological game now," says Guillermo Cantú, a former player for Mexico who now directs its national teams. "The mentality is on the American side, and we have to steal it."
Rafael Ramos, who covers the Mexican team for the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión in Los Angeles, takes the notion a step further.
"The Mexican writer Octavio Paz once said, Mexicans have more fear of victory than of defeat," he explains. "The fans are the same way. Just watch this next game against the U.S. No matter how much confidence they have in their team–in the altitude, in the smog, in the pressure they'll bring against the U.S.–they will grow worried. There will be total euphoria the first 10 to 15 minutes, but if a goal doesn't come, there will be complete silence. The doubt kills you. It's a very Mexican idiosyncrasy."
The U.S. players' explanations for their recent success aren't so complex. "When it comes down to soccer, we're the better team," says Donovan. "But if we want to get to the next level, we need to win World Cup qualifiers on the road. For too long we've had this mind-set that a tie on the road is good. I don't care if you throw all the [Azteca] factors in. We're a better team, and we should beat Mexico."
More than any other U.S. player, Donovan inspires mixed emotions from the Mexican fans. On the one hand they appreciate his fluency in Spanish and his fast-but-precise playing style, which some observers consider vaguely Mexican. Not for nothing did Donovan receive a third-place vote from the Mexican federation in the 2002 FIFA World Player of the Year balloting. On the other hand Donovan offended his hosts at the '04 Olympic qualifying tournament in Guadalajara, where he was caught relieving himself discreetly on a training-field shrub. Caught on video, the incident got huge play in the Mexican media.
"To me it was never a big deal," he says. "I would say chanting, 'Osama, Osama,' carries a lot more weight than me going to the bathroom on the side of their field."
Ultimately, Donovan's best response might be the one that translates into any language: Scoreboard, baby.
"If you're a Mexican soccer fan, it must be incredibly disheartening at this point," says Lalas. "Because that one thing that you could pin your hopes on was, At least we're going to kick your ass on the soccer field. When that's taken away, it must be depressing. But I'll tell you what: We've taken it away, and we're not giving it back. It's up to them to come and get it. And I hope that we keep kicking their ass, time and time again."
But it's one thing for that to happen in a U.S. stadium, quite another if it took place in the vaunted Azteca. "If Mexico loses at home against the United States," says Ramos, "only God can say what might happen."
On Sunday he may find out.