Gringo Report: US-Mexico rivalry focus of new documentary

GUADALAJARA, Mexico – Could the rivalry that simmers between the United States and Mexico grow to become one of the biggest in world soccer?

Pablo Miralles, director, writer and producer of new documentary Gringos at the Gate, thinks it has all the ingredients to be just that and his film explains why that claim isn’t just promotional hyperbole.

“The idea was to highlight a world rivalry that not a lot of people know about, but is by far the most interesting in my opinion,” Miralles told MLSsoccer.com from Los Angeles on Monday.

WATCH: Gringos at the Gate trailer

Miralles, of Dutch and Argentine descent, says the initial idea for the documentary began in a pub in Germany during the 2006 World Cup. It was there that a drunken Englishman told Miralles wholeheartedly that he was fearful of the day the United States became a world soccer power.

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Upon his return to the US, Miralles, an LA Galaxy season-ticket holder, related the story to a Mexican-American friend, who replied: “That is the fear of all Mexicans.”

Having become accustomed to witnessing the intensity of Mexican national team games in Southern California while growing up, but also having tracked the rise of the US national team, something clicked for Miralles. He decided to pour his own money into making the first feature-length documentary on why other fans, especially Mexicans, are fearful of a strong US team as well as the complex dynamics at play when the US and Mexico clash on the soccer pitch.

The resulting film, Gringos at the Gate, traces the origins of the US-Mexico soccer rivalry, from the very different beginnings of the game in both Mexico and the United States to last year’s Gold Cup final, won 4-2 by El Tri in front of an overwhelmingly pro-Mexico crowd at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.

The filming takes in the cold, wet World Cup qualifier in 2009 in Columbus, as well as the return game later that year under the intense mid-afternoon sun in Mexico City's Estadio Azteca. It also focuses on the effect the 1994 World Cup had in the US and the 2002 World Cup victory by the Stars and Stripes against Mexico.

To its credit, Gringos at the Gate paints the picture from both sides of the border.

On the Mexican side, former national team players like Leo Cuéllar, Alberto García Aspe and Ricardo Peláez, among others, try to put the importance of El Tri into words, as well as what the improvement of the US team ultimately means for Mexico.

“We were always superior,” says García Aspe in the film. “Now, starting with the year 2000, the US, I believe, has surpassed us.”

For the US, former national team coach Steve Sampson, Cobi Jones and Soccer America’s Mike Woitalla give insights into the development of a previously one-sided rivalry, the improvement in the US national team and the fact the US have had the upper hand in games against Mexico since 1994.

All talk with authority, but the real gems in the documentary are accounts from Mexican-Americans caught in the middle soccer rivalry, fans of El Tri but residents of the United States.

For Mike Whelan, fellow writer, producer and editor of the film, seeing the number of conflicted Mexican-American was an eye-opener and something he didn’t expect to see when filming began.  

Summed up one Mexican-American girl in the documentary, wearing a split Mexico-US T-shirt: “It’s hard, because you see the majority of the fans are for Mexico and, for me to come out and say I don’t know who I root for, I’m kind of in the middle, you kind of get stigmatized.”

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Herculez Gomez relates the conflict of identity best, telling the story of watching the 2002 World Cup game between the two countries with his Mexico-supporting father and retrospectively poking fun at the silent friction between the pair as the US won for the first time ever against Mexico outside of the United States. Gomez has always supported the USMNT first and foremost, but admits that when Mexico play a neutral team, he will support El Tri.  

For the record, Gomez’s father is now a firm supporter of the US, although he still follows Mexico.

The interviews all reinforce the face that the relationship between Mexican-Americans and both national teams is not black and white, adding a layer to the dynamics of the rivalry that should only increase as time goes on.

It also dispels the claim that soccer has never taken hold in the United States, argues Miralles.

“The subtext in my film is that soccer doesn’t need to grow in certain places, it already exists here,” he said. “We can fill 92,000 people into a stadium in California and these are soccer fans first.”

With five players with Mexican heritage appearing for the US last weekend against Scotland, four of whom play in Mexico, and World Cup qualifying around the corner, the timing for Gringos at the Gate couldn’t be better.

The world premiere takes place on June 27 at the Kicking and Screening Festival in New York.

Tom Marshall covers Americans playing in Latin America. Contact him at tom.marshall.mex@gmail.com.