The United States played Mexico in soccer, for the very first time 65 years ago in Rome, in a qualifying match for the 1934 World Cup. The winner would get to stick around a few more days to open the tournament against the home team, Italy, before 50,000 rabid fans in the Stadium of the National Fascist Party.
The U.S. team defeated Mexico 4-2 and, though thrashed 7-1 by the Azzurri three days later, returned home confident in its standing as the region’s soccer kingpin. After all, four years before, at the very first World Cup in Uruguay the United States had finished third while Mexico had lost all of its games.
The reign of the Nortes Americanos turned out to be short-lived: It would be another 46 years before the United States would again beat Mexico at soccer. Indeed what occurred between the two national teams in the ensuing years was less a contest than a ritual humiliation. Over the next 10 games, played in a time period spanning more than two decades, Mexico would not only make a clean sweep of it, but would outscore the Yanks 56-11.
The Obama presidency has certainly raised the stakes here in the United States for all sentiments that begin, “I never dreamed that one day…”
Still, for kids like me who grew up in this soccer backwater with a taste for The World Game, it was unimaginable — a flight of the wildest fancy — that someday the red, white and blue would soar above the high-flying green, white and red on the soccer pitch.
But as the United States and Mexico meet Wednesday night in Columbus, Ohio to kick off the final round of regional qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, that day has finally come. It is far more than that the United States stands 22nd in the official FIFA world rankings, four spots above Mexico. Rather, it has been demonstrated in head-to-head competition: in a dozen games since 2000, the U.S. team has nine wins and a tie. And in the last nine games competed on U.S. soil, Mexico has scored a grand total of but one goal.
Granted the U.S. has yet to best Mexico south of the border. But the last two matches have produced narrow, one-goal defeats. Not all that shabby given that Mexico boasts one of the greatest home-field advantages in the world — Mexico City’s Aztec Stadium at a gut-wrenching altitude of 7,800 feet (and filled with 126,000 fans raining down abuse). But the U.S. triumphed in cities like Dallas and Los Angeles that once were considered virtual “home” games for Mexico, since its fans greatly outnumbered U.S. boosters. And in the one game that counted most, a round-of-16 showdown at the 2002 World Cup in Korea, the U.S. spanked Mexico 2-0.
What has emerged — at least on the field — is a genuine rivalry, with all the requisite historical grievances, mutual distaste and chippy play. Off the field is a different story. A former Mexican coach once mocked the Americans’ prowess, suggesting that they have the luxury of playing absent any real pressure since the nation is oblivious. By contrast the fate of Mexico seems to hang in the balance each time El Tri takes the field.
And right now the pressure has been ratcheted up to unprecedented levels. Mexican fans are witnessing the erosion of the one arena in which the nation could lord its superiority over the rich and arrogant giant to the north. And they must contemplate what was once unimaginable: an ignominious failure to reach South Africa and the 2010 World Cup finals.
That pressure is taking a considerable toll. Hugo Sanchez, the greatest and most revered player in Mexican history, was dumped after only 16 months as national team coach when Mexico’s under-23s failed to qualify for the Olympics. Last summer Mexico imported former England coach Sven-Goran Erikkson to guide the team through World Cup qualifying. But the Swede is already on shaky ground after Mexico stumbled in last year’s preliminaries. It went winless in its last three games and only qualified for the regional finals ahead of Jamaica by the slimmest of margins — a goal differential tiebreaker.
Mexico joins the United States, Costa Rica and Honduras, all group winners in the preliminaries, along with the two other runners-up El Salvador and Trinidad & Tobago in this Hexagonal — with only three automatic World Cup bids available. And the last thing Mexico needs, given the fragile psyche of its team, is to start off the finals in a hole.
But cold, icy Columbus is a most likely place for that to happen. The Mexicans have visited there twice before in the dark of winter, for World Cup qualifying in 2001 and again in 2005, and both times were frozen out 2-0. Mexican fans are praying this game will mark a new beginning, but more fearful than ever that it could prove to be the beginning of the end for the country’s dreams of 2010.