I’m going to take the long way around in explaining to you why you should watch the Gold Cup final between the U.S. and Mexico tomorrow evening. I could easily just tell you that you can see Chicharito try things that most players would be embarrassed to try, and at impossible speeds. I could also point out that watching Tim Howard take his ten teammates on his back and defy human reflexes is an experience every American sports fan needs to witness. I could remind you about what happened a year ago this week.
Instead, I’m going to talk about rivalry, culture, the Olympics, nationalism, immigration, hatred, and sports.
I have never been a huge fan of watching the Olympics. I find most of the sports, outside of the the ones I watch in between Olympic years, droll and unrewarding. The coverage, with endless feature pieces and tinkling piano music, relies so heavily on the athletes’ personal stories, you get the sense that it’s made for people who don’t really like sports. For the most part, I stand by that. It’s not about the sports. It’s far too individual for my tastes. Every two years, I find myself explaining this to those unfortunate enough to get roped into a conversation with me about it.
Then, in 2008, someone completely ended my Olympic bellyaching. I was going through my usual diatribe, and they politely listened. Then, this friend responded with something I will never forget. “Dave,” she said, “it’s about being able to be overtly nationalist and patriotic without countries invading one another.”
As simple as it sounds, I realized this person was totally right. Man and civilization, like it or not, is rooted in warlike tendencies. Whether it’s holding an Olympics, playing paintball, or painting a flag on your face for a soccer game, the tribalist spirit creeps through into our society constantly, no matter how progressive we become.
Which brings me back to the U.S. and Mexico. There is no image in sports, not the Yankee pinstripes, the blue and white word “DUKE,” or Sydney Crosby’s number 87 sweater, that evokes more anger in me than El Tri. The green shirts, white shorts, and red socks of the Mexican national team makes me cast aside the logical detachment through which I normall enjoy sports. Basically, I become a face-painter.
Every four years, always and forever, Mexico will be in our way to World Cup qualification. Every two years, including tomorrow evening, they’ll be our foil in the Gold Cup. We may never win a match at Estadio Azteca for as long as it stands. These facts are fundamental to the existence of the United States’ soccer cause.
There are two primary driving factors in this rivalry, and none of them have to do with Arizona, immigration laws, or multilingual ATM machines. The first is history. The United States’ hodgepodge national team was attempting to qualify for the 1934 World Cup at Stadio Nazionale in Italy. An overconfident Mexican side dropped the first meeting 4-2, humiliating a country that was already building a rich soccer tradition and keeping them out of the 1934 World Cup. The national teams would not meet again until 1937, but from that point on, Mexico began a two-decade campaign of retribution and humiliation against the U.S. team, outscoring them 56-11 during the ’37-’57 period. The United States would not defeat Mexico again until 1991.
The second factor is geographic proximity. The reasons behind the tension along the U.S.-Mexico border and its impact on both countries’ culture and economy are far too complex in a silly sports column. The central, existential reason, however, is the same reason that we can expect to play Mexico in every Gold Cup final we reach: they’re right next door (sorry, Canada). Whether CONCACAF exists or not, odds are that whatever configuration international soccer takes, the U.S. and Mexico will be squaring off at least once a year (2010 was the first year the teams did not play in 18 years, after playing three times in 2009).
That is about where the similarities between the U.S. soccer rivalry, and the feelings that make people boycott Arizona Diamondbacks games end. I don’t hate the Mexican soccer team because I hate the country or its people. Quite the contrary, in fact. I speak Spanish. Traveling to Mexico was probably the highlight of my 2011 so far. I live 1,800 miles from the Mexican border. I happen to support paths to citizenship for Mexicans already living and working in this country.
And have I mentioned that I really, really, hate the Mexican soccer team? I hate Chivas Guadalajara, and their frustrating victory over D.C. United in the 2007 Copa Sudamericana. I hate Cuauhtemoc Blanco and all his smugness. I hate the Spanish profanity they yell during every goal kick. I hate how they throw batteries and bags of urine at Landon Donovan. I hate how we can’t beat them on their soil.
I hate them because they’re our rival, and because they hate us. They don’t hate us because some people in our country want to build a concrete wall on our border. They don’t hate us because of our cultural differences. They hate our soccer team. And that’s okay, because after 90 minutes, the Olympics, the paintball game, the face-painting jingoism is put to rest. In North America, we have the fortunate station in life to not have our soccer history so closely tied to religious, ethnic, and political identity. Our teams are teams, our players players, and once the whistle blows, we can stop hating.
On Saturday, the Rose Bowl crowd will sway heavily toward Mexico. There will be chants, songs, name-calling, and thrown objects. I would not have it any other way. It’s the best soccer rivalry in this hemisphere, because in the end, it’s about soccer.
Dave Gilmore lives in Baltimore, works for a sports-oriented non-profit, and writes “The Win Column” for BaltimoreSportsReport. He is currently working on a novel about college football. Find him on Twitter @dave_gilmore.