Kate Linthicum and Cecilia SanchezContact Reporter
Soccer-crazed Mexicans tune in for every big game, crowding bars, restaurants and any other place with a television.
But Sunday’s match will be exceptional: As the Mexican national team faces off against the United States in a World Cup qualifying contest here, it won’t just be about who best handles the ball.
“President Trump has offended us, he is threatening us with his wall,” said Mario López, 38, who was selling sports clothes from a stand in a crowded market in Mexico City.
"If Mexico beats the United States,” he said, “Mexicans will celebrate like never before.”
he U.S. and Mexican soccer teams have carried on a fierce rivalry since their first faceoff in a World Cup qualifier 83 years ago.
The dirty tackles, head-butts and upsets: A history of the 83-year U.S.-Mexico soccer rivalry
Mexican players say they have always felt a special pressure to deliver victories against their neighbor to the north. While the U.S. may have a far larger economy and a more powerful military, one place Mexico can win is on the soccer field.
But this year, the rivalry has kicked into overdrive.
“President Trump has fomented hatred against Mexicans,” said Federico Gonzales, a 50-year-old doctor on Mexico City’s south side.
“If Mexico is victorious Sunday, it will send a message,” he said. “‘We win! In your face, Trump!’”
It will be a great joy if we beat the gringos.
— Mexican soccer fan Alma Rodriguez
Trump has criticized Mexico since Day 1 of his presidential campaign, insulting Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers and vowing to make Mexico pay for construction of a border wall.
Political tensions between the two countries have eased somewhat in recent months as Trump turns his attention to other world regions and seeks to manage a damaging FBI investigation into his campaign’s possible ties with Russia.
The president hasn’t secured funding for a wall, and hasn’t released a plan to make Mexico pay for it. He hasn’t followed through with his threats to levy a 20% border tax on imports from Mexico and some other countries.
Still, that doesn’t mean Mexicans have forgotten his stinging insults.
“I feel deceived that the American people could support him,” said Reyes Damian, 60, who spent six years in California picking fruit and vegetables.
While Damian remembers his time in the U.S. fondly, he will be supporting Mexico on Sunday. “Of course,” he said. “I’m proud to be Mexican.”
More than 90,000 fans packed the Rose Bowl to see Mexico defeat the U.S. 3-2 in the 2015 CONCACAF Cu
More than 90,000 fans packed the Rose Bowl to see Mexico defeat the U.S. 3-2 in the 2015 CONCACAF Cup. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
The teams themselves have done their best to eliminate politics from their rivalry.
Just days after Trump’s election last November, the teams met in Columbus, Ohio, for another World Cup qualifier.
Tensions were even higher then. The Mexico peso was in freefall over fears that Trump would tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement, and Mexican immigrants living illegally in the U.S. were terrified by Trump’s threats to form a “deportation force.”
But the players on the field did their best to defuse any hostility. Instead of posing for separate team photographs, as usual, the teams came together, forming what sportswriters described as a “unity wall.” That friendliness was reflected in the stands, where fans for the opposing teams bought beers for each other and no fights were reported.
Mexico won that match 2-1. Whether Sunday’s game will be equally tranquil remains to be seen.
The teams will be playing at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca, feared for its 7,200-feet altitude, choking smog and rowdy crowds. Mexican fans have been known to throw beer bottles, trash and even bags of urine at opposing teams. In the past they’ve hung effigies of rival players from the rafters.
Perhaps because of their reputation, some soccer fans said they were determined to be respectful.
"We Mexicans have to show that we have respect for the Americans, that we have respect for their anthem, their flag and their players,” said Roberto Aceves, a 41-year-old architect.
“We have to realize that we are friends, and that the U.S. players are not to blame for having the ignorant and racist president they have,” he said.
Others worried what a Mexican victory might mean for the delicate U.S.-Mexico relationship.
“If Mexico wins, I’m worried that Trump will have a tantrum and threaten us on Twitter, or tell us that tomorrow the construction of the wall begins,” said Alma Rodríguez, a 24-year-old student.
Still, Rodriguez said, she will be rooting for the home team: “It will be a great joy if we beat the gringos.”
It will be a greater day when Mexicans can no longer walk across the border.