At the final whistle of Mexico’s 2-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Canada in Mexico City in March, home fans celebrated not by singing Cielito Lindo – the 19th century song often heard at Mexico’s soccer matches that has come to represent national pride – but instead by showering the national team with a chorus of boos and whistles.
The Mexican players and coaching staff might have been surprised by the reaction. The win, after all, was the team’s fourth straight in qualifying. In those four games, Mexico had not given up a single goal, outscoring its opponents 10-0. The victory also marked Mexico’s eighth straight win in official international competitions (all of which were against its regional Concacaf opponents). Counting friendlies, including a 2-2 draw against Argentina in September in Arlington, Texas, it was Mexico’s 17th straight undefeated match.
But many of the 75,000 fans in attendance at Mexico City’s historic Estadio Azteca weren’t reacting to the positive result on top of the series of other positive results. They were responding to the Mexican team’s lackluster second-half performance, which began with Mexico ahead 2-0 and consisted largely of a routine execution of a harmless game of keep-away.
Yet no matter how the Mexican team plays this month at Copa America Centenario, which for Mexico begins on Sunday against Uruguay, in Glendale, Arizona, that reaction is not one the Mexican team will receive. Mexico plays more of its “home” friendly matches every year in the United States than it does in Mexico, and it’s done so now for roughly the last 20 years. Its fan base in the States is so great that even for its games against the US, including last October’s Concacaf Cup in Pasadena, it has an indisputable fan advantage in most American stadiums. Which means that at this year’s Copa America, Mexico is the de facto premier home side. But Mexico’s fan base in the US is a decidedly different one than its base in Mexico, and a decidedly more forgiving one.
Mexico’s soccer games in the US are “a great way for us to have something to rally around and to share in our food, our culture, and our language,” says Sergio Tristan, a first generation Mexican American and the founder of Pancho Villa’s Army, the largest Mexican national team fan-support group in the United States. “I do think that it’s a privilege to see the Mexican team play live and that Pancho Villa’s Army would never boo the team, regardless of the result.”
“Many of the people who go to [Mexico’s games in the US] do not have legal papers,” says Juan Villoro, the Mexican author of God Is Round, a book of vignettes on soccer, and one of the most respected living writers about the sport. “If the border patrol would make an inspection in these stadiums, they would find many illegal Mexicans there. But these so-called aliens risk this situation because they want to be in Mexico. At that very moment, the stadium is a part of Mexico. It’s really moving to see those people evoking so many emotions and trying to be part of this little Mexico for 90 minutes. This is extraordinary.”
But, Villoro adds, the risk comes at a price. “The flip side of this is that our national federation is playing with all these illusions and hopes of the people who live abroad.”
Up until the mid-1980s, when Mexico hosted international soccer friendlies, it almost always did so in Mexico. But in 1988, it was announced that the 1994 World Cup would take place in the United States, and it became good business for the sport to do what it could to popularize soccer among the relatively ignorant Americans. Competitions were created to do so. In 1989, Mexico took part in a four-team tournament called the LA Soccer Cup. The national team defeated El Salvador in the final at the LA Coliseum before a crowd of more than 40,000. A year after the World Cup in the US, which set attendance records for the event, Mexico played Chile in a friendly in Los Angeles. Almost 60,000 people showed up for the match. By the end of the century, the Mexican federation had flipped its script. In 2000, the Mexican national team played nine friendlies, and seven of them were in the US. A decade later, in 2010, Mexico would draw 90,000 people to a weekday friendly in Pasadena against New Zealand, a team that hadn’t played in a World Cup at the time in 18 years. Needless to say, scheduling these matches in the US has proven financially profitable to Mexican soccer.
In 2014, the Mexican soccer federation renewed its contract, first signed in 2003, with an American company called Soccer United Marketing, a division of Major League Soccer. According to a report in The Los Angeles Times, the agreement stipulates that Mexico must play at least five friendlies a year in the United States, for which the Mexican soccer federation earns $2m a game, or about three times what it would if it played the match in Mexico. This means that in a year in which international soccer breaks are occupied with World Cup qualifying matches, such as 2013, when Mexico had only five friendly matches, and the upcoming 2017, most if not all of those matches are played in the US.
Rosters for these friendlies are often expanded to include players who likely have no chance of making the national squads for international competitions. Despite Fifa including the results of those friendly matches in its highly ridiculed world rankings, the final scores rarely matter to anyone. Often the biggest concern in these matches is that no player gets hurt. In sport, when there is no competitive aspect to the competition, what is left?
“Mexicans living inside the country despise those games, where nothing is at stake, organized to cash in and make a profit out of the nostalgia of those living abroad,” Villoro says. The most popular Mexican television announcers of these games, Christian Martinoli and Luis Garcia of TV Azteca, often criticize them, calling them “dreadful” and “ not interesting,” Villoro says. He uses the words “ludicrous” and “unuseful.”
But this doesn’t stop the fans from attending. “We love the fact that Mexico comes [to the US] to play, because we love watching our team play,” says Tristan. “It gives us a way to express ourselves culturally on occasion, even if it’s only five times a year. It’s a great way for us to maintain our community here in the US.” (The Mexican federation did not respond to requests for comment.)
The federation isn’t the only organization to profit from the dual audience. The team has numerous sponsors in both Mexico and the US, and as a result its games are filmed from both sides of the field, in what is called a “reverse broadcast.” One camera angle captures the advertisements in Spanish on one side of the pitch. Another angle captures the English ads on the other.
Last year’s Copa America took place in Chile. The Chilean national team took advantage and won the tournament. The Mexican team will try to use its home crowd to similar effect this year.
This article was written by David Gendelman, for theguardian.com on Sunday 5th June 2016 11.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010