COLUMBUS, Ohio —The Mexico national team gathered at MAPFRE Stadium on Thursday afternoon, taking to the pitch in preparation for a massive clash with the United States on Friday (7:45pm ET; FS1, Univision).
The match – which opens the Hexagonal (final) phase of 2018 World Cup qualification for both sides – already has the hype of any encounter between CONCACAF’s giants, bitter rivals with decades of history on the pitch and more than a century of history off of it.
But there is undoubtedly something different about this encounter, one which comes just days after a US presidential election that resulted in Donald Trump – a man who’s made contentious statements about both Mexican immigrants and American citizens of Mexican descent – rise to power.
In the wake of Trump's victory, US players called for respect and unity among fans and players from both nations. And on Thursday, players and coaches on both sides of the rivalry reflected on the results of the election and its potential implications on the match, both on the pitch and in the stands.
With carefully weighted words and largely sticking to the task ahead of them – the match itself - players expressed a mutual respect for each other and the rivalry as a whole.
“There's people out there who maybe want to politicize this game,” said US and Philadelphia Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya. “But I don't see the need for it. It's a rivalry. It's US vs. Mexico, it's nothing more than that. I think we're both competitive teams, competitive guys.
“We're going to try to kick each others' butt on the field. But off the field, it's nothing but being passionate, I would think our fans would want to come out here and support each others' team as much as they can, and then respect one another as well. I think a lot of the rhetoric that's been out there is negative and out here, it's a game. It's a competitive one, yes, it's a rivalry, and we're going to do whatever it takes to win on the field. But you've got to enjoy the atmosphere that's here in Columbus and be passionate about it.”
Mexico head coach Juan Carlos Osorio likely sees the rivalry through a rather unique lens. Osorio played in his native Colombia before coming to the US in the '80s, attending college and playing at the University of New Haven. Since then, he’s plied his trade as a coach in MLS and Liga MX alike. The Mexico national team gig is just the latest entry in a lengthy and culturally diverse resume.
“First of all,” Osorio said. “I was an exchange student, then I was an immigrant in the United States trying to get a great opportunity to go to school and work. I worked as hard as any other American – so I can sympathize with what the Mexicans feel about this whole situation.
“Nevertheless, my efforts are all directed towards winning this game and nothing else. I’m not really here to discuss any political issues.”
Osorio’s American counterpart, US coach Jurgen Klinsmann, downplayed the potential effect of the Tuesday’s election on Friday’s game, focusing instead on the potential of rivalry matches like this one to bring people together.
“I think football worldwide is a sport that connects people, that gets people together, and you have always this healthy competition," said the German-born coach. "This is a big rivalry, it's a big clash. In Europe, you have Germany-Holland, or France against Spain. You have Brazil against Argentina, these games.
“I think over years now they noticed in Europe and in South America that there's a very, very special rivalry that has developed in North America here with Mexico against the US. It's purely a sporting event. It's purely a game of respect – we have a lot of respect for Mexico, their people and their team. So I think this is the wonderful side of sports. It brings people together.”