Jerry Hinnen’s comment to my admission that I don’t dislike the Mexican National Team:
Ugh, Michael. Ugh ugh ugh. It's not often I disagree with you at all, much less vehemently, but I don't get the calls to "respect" Mexico and their fans and all.
caused me to think back to why I feel this way. So let’s play a game of early childhood memories, soccer edition. My appreciation for Mexico dates back to seeing them in 1994.
When the US hosted the 1994 World Cup, my family got tickets to the games in Orlando. We had three tickets per game for the five of us. The first game for which we had tickets was the coveted clash between natural rivals Belgium and Morocco. The crew for that game was my mom and two brothers, Dan and Jacob. They committed the ultimate sin in my world: they got to the game late and missed the only goal.** So, when my Dad, Dan, and I went to the next Orlando match – Mexico vs. Ireland – we got to the game very, very early.***
* – Jacob, my youngest brother, was seven at the time, so he got the short end of the stick: the two Morocco games. As a redeeming gesture, we bought him a fez at Epcot Center, so everybody wins.
** - I am not a super punctual person, but I will always leave way too much time to spare when going to two places: the airport and a sporting venue. This topped out when I was on the train from Notting Hill Gate to Wembley three hours before the Champions League Final. I could have walked to the stadium and made it in plenty of time.
*** – Mexico-Ireland was really just a cruel joke on the Irish. It was game two for each team in that World Cup’s Group of Death (Italy and Norway were the other teams involved) and it was must-win for Mexico because they had lost to Norway in Washington, DC in their opener. Ireland, on the other hand, had a margin for error after they had upset Italy at the Meadowlands on Ray Houghton’s famous goal. (Every goal scored by Ireland during the Jack Charlton era could be described as “against the run of play” and as the result of a long ball not properly dealt with by the opponent. Why people stomached that Ireland team I’ll never know.) To cater to the European TV audience, the game was played at 12:35 EST. In Orlando. At the Citrus Bowl, which sits next to a dingy swamp-like spot that the locals refer to as a lake. Now, imagine what the weather was like and then imagine how a bunch of fair-complexioned Irish players based in England fared in that weather. The only people who were worse off were the Irish fans, who drank before the game and then turned into distressed lobsters as the match progressed, sitting in the roof-less, shade-less Citrus Bowl. On the bright side, one guy behind us unintentionally taught me a hole panoply of ways to use the c-word and another guy implored the ref to give every Mexican a yellow card, both individually and collectively, thus giving me a saying (done in a horrible Irish accent) for the rest of my life.
With time to kill before losing my big futbol game virginity, I wandered around the stadium.* By happenstance, I was wandering by when the Mexican bus arrived to deposit El Tri at the Citrus Bowl. By this point in my life, I had been to plenty of sports events, but I had never seen a reaction quite like this. The Mexican fans surged towards the fences separating them from the buses. Men, women, and children all had facial expressions that combined innocent joy and abject fear. As the players got off the bus, they all grinned sheepishly and acknowledged the fans. I imagined that they were thinking “man, it’s great to be supported by these fans, but holy shit, we can’t lose this game.” I distinctly remember noticing Jorge Campos making eye contact with the fans before heading towards the locker room and then thinking “that guy is really short.”
* – Possibly subconsciously, I did the exact same thing before the Champions League Final. In both instances, I went counter-clockwise without thinking about direction.
I rooted for Mexico in the match, in part because I hated that Ireland side* and in part because I was in awe of the love shown by their fans to the team when they arrived. There was absolutely no expression of contempt for a team that had just been upset in its first World Cup match in eight years.** Mexico scored twice*** and held on for a 2-1 win. The atmosphere was memorable enough that I’m prattling on about it 17 years later. I can’t say that I am a fan of the Mexican National Team, but I don’t dislike them the way that most fans of the Nats do and the expression of unbridled joy delivered to players getting off of a bus on a one-match losing streak is a formative reason why I feel this way. So there.
* – That Ireland side competed in the ‘90 and ‘94 World Cups. In nine matches, they scored four goals. Four. They played a stultifying long ball style that led to the single worst game in international football history: the 0-0 draw with Norway that followed the match against Mexico. When people talk about the dismally boring Italia '90 (redeemed only by Cameroon, Toto Schillaci’s facial expressions, and a worthy champion), they often talk of too many knock-out matches ending up being decided by penalties or Argentina’s disgraceful display. Me, I think of Ireland making it farther than Brazil and the Netherlands. Any time you can make that statement about a World Cup, you know that the tournament was disappointing.
** – Mexico was barred from Italia ‘90 for fielding over-age players at a youth tournament. So Jerry, you have that going for you. That ban is what created the space for the US to make the World Cup for the first time in four decades.
*** – “The Americans have been very fond of their pink caps and self-importance in running this World Cup and that’s just another example of it.” Uh, you gave us Bono.