This is the third in a series of essays about the 2018 World Cup guest-edited by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.
I was supposed to have gone to Gonzalo and Pia’s house, in Chimalistac, a southern neighborhood of Mexico City, to watch the Mexico-Belgium 1998 World Cup match. I must have gotten got caught up in something else; I didn’t care much about “soccer.” In high school, in Massachusetts, I’d played football, and was a Red Sox fan. When I left my apartment in the Condesa at the start of the second half, Mexico, El Tri—as the national team is called, for the tricolor flag—was losing, 2-0. It was a sunny Sunday, the sidewalks and streets empty because everybody was inside watching the match. I caught a taxi, one of those green VW Beetles with the front passenger seat taken out. On the lowered door of the glove compartment sat a battery-operated black-and-white TV. The driver asked me to hold the antennae out the window.
About ten minutes had passed when a Mexican player was fouled in the goal area. On the Viaducto Miguel Alemán, the driver pulled over. García Aspe drove the penalty kick into the net, and now it was 2-1. Seven minutes later, still on the expressway, Jesús Arellano, a player known as “El Cabrito” (Little Goat), sent a long crossing pass to Ramón Ramírez, who deftly sent a lateral pass back across the Belgian goal area to Cuauhtémoc Blanco, who came flying in from the right, legs thrust forward almost as if in an airborne baseball slide. The ball shot off Cuau’s left foot into the net for a spectacular goal—golazo!—that tied the game.
At that instant, a passion for Mexican futbol, for El Tri, entered me like a lightning bolt through that antennae held out the window, pointed up at that legendary Mexico City sky.
“You won’t believe what you missed!” exclaimed Gonzalo when I arrived, with twenty or so minutes of the match still remaining. Gonzalo and Pia’s parents were famous writers, Gabriel García Márquez and Salvador Elizondo. In front of the TV, Gonzalo and Pia’s ten-year-old son, Mateo, was bouncing up and down chanting, “If Mexico wins, I promise to read Moby-Dick!”
Mexico qualified for the next round of sixteen, but lost 2-1 to Germany. In every World Cup since 1994, Mexico has emerged from the group stage to play a fourth match, and has lost every time. Of the five countries that have most often qualified for the World Cup, only Mexico has never won the championship; it’s never even reached the finals. But getting to that fifth match, the round of eight, has become the Holy Grail of Mexican fut. Along the way, El Tri also forged an identity as a team that wages improbable comebacks and enthralling, hectic World Cup matches, challenging superior teams, often losing gloriously, and sometimes flopping against lesser ones.
Only certain Red Sox losses have caused me such pain as Mexico’s extra-time 2-1 loss to Argentina—in the round of sixteen, of course—the most thrilling match of that 2006 World Cup. Maybe that was when I realized that experiencing the emotional rollercoaster and inevitable anguish of being a Red Sox fan was just like being a fan of El Tri. Did I become an ardent fan of la Selección Mexicana because the Red Sox had made me an addict of that most predictably exquisite form of sports suffering: loving a team that always brought hope to an excited peak, then left you devastated? Or was I connecting to a Mexican fatalism that eschews passive acceptance for melodramatic torment.
As someone who grew up with a split sense of national belonging, my new attachment to Mexican futbol accompanied a sense of Mexican belonging that has steadily deepened over the last two decades. But does Mexico itself raise expectations and then crash into disillusion, repeatedly, as El Tri does? In rather obvious political ways, it does. The capital, Mexico City, enthralls one with its hustling, its scrapping, and its creative energies, chaotic and inspiring; and so long as one doesn’t unrealistically idealize it, the city doesn’t truly disappoint. But as if it’s something like Mexico’s digestive system, the city does channel the country’s tragedies—after forty-three school students were murdered in Iguala in 2014, hundreds of thousands filled the streets in Mexico City, in a series of marches of rage and grief that began to transform the country politically.
One of the most piercing expressions of Mexican-ness I’ve ever experienced was in the early morning hours in a bar in Brooklyn, watching Mexico play the USA in the round of sixteen, in Jeonju Stadium in 2002. I’ll never forget the excitement, pride, and optimism of all those young male Mexicans, mostly restaurant workers, who crowded into that bar, nursing cheap draught beers, to watch a game that Mexico was supposed to win but lost miserably, and how furtively they slipped out the door before the match had ended, while preppy gringo soccer fans celebrated by treating one another to a round of Grey Goose shots. Man, was that depressing.
In 2015, the Colombian Juan Carlos Osorio became Mexico’s twelfth head coach in nine years. I liked him because of his history: he’d played for the University of New Haven and graduated from Southern Connecticut State University with a degree in exercise science; he got his start coaching a Staten Island team, and went on to be a successful head coach in Colombia. Osorio’s thoughtful, respectful demeanor, along with his curriculum vitae and propensity for strategic experimenting, earned him the nickname “El Profe.” In forty-seven matches with El Tri, he’s never fielded the same starting line-up twice, something that drives Mexican TV futbol commentators, and most fans, crazy, but which has helped to win the loyalty of his athletes, who say El Profe’s style keeps everyone motivated. The results of his tenure have been mixed, but just the right side of desultory. In the 2016 Copa America, Mexico was humiliated by Chile 7-0, a traumatic defeat. Still, El Tri easily finished at the head of its World Cup qualifying round, and came through with memorable victories against the USA, in Columbus, Ohio, and Pasadena, California—two grueling, epic matches played in atmospheres inevitably freighted with Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric.
Back then, I was still kind of hoping Mexico wouldn’t do well in the 2018 World Cup. What if reaching that coveted fifth match, in the round of eight, enflamed nationalist sentiment and helped the ruling PRI do better in this summer’s coming election? But under Enrique Peña Nieto’s PRI presidency, the country’s situation has become so dire, and the PRI and the political establishment have become so unpopular, that for once it’s clear that the World Cup isn’t going to distract from more urgent realities, no matter how well El Tri performs. An election promising a historic political realignment seems to be in the offing; no matter how much the establishment, widely regarded as corrupt and complicit in the country’s crisis, resorts to scare tactics, the overwhelmingly poor majority of the population seems uncommonly determined to give the one politician who seems authentically on their side, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, often known by his initials simply as “AMLO,” a chance to govern. Whether AMLO will deliver radical change is another matter: to broaden their base, he and his Morena party have made some unsavory alliances—notably, with a dubious opportunist who is running for governor of the state of Morelos, none other than that futbol immortal of the 1998 golazo against Belgium, Cuauhtémoc Blanco.
When listening to the scorn heaped on Osorio by the PRI-like futbol establishment media, it’s tempting to compare him to AMLO. Osorio has this in his favor: this is supposed to be the most talented national team Mexico has ever sent to a World Cup, including the explosive striker, Hirving Lozano, known to fans as “El Chucky,” who has just had a breakthrough season with the Dutch club PSV Eindhoven. Following a scoreless tie in a friendly against Wales, though, Osorio was excoriated by fut’s TV pundits. I kept hearing the same crack about El Profe: “I guess he’s a genius not understood by us commentators.” And when El Tri recently beat Scotland at the Estadio Azteca by the narrow margin of 1-0, the home team was booed off, with chants of “Osorio out.” As a friend, who is a US newspaper correspondent, remarked to me: “This is so Mexico, so much talent and energy, but they just can’t do the right thing.” Yet the players’ loyalty to their coach seems unshaken. They seem confident, as if they share a secret.
I feel that maybe better times are coming. It’s what my antennae tell me.