COLUMBUS, Ohio – None of the 25,000-odd souls knew exactly what might unfold as they assembled at the Ohio Fairgrounds, their cars aligned in a sprawling grid on a chilly late-fall day draped heavy with anticipation.
A bitter presidential election had concluded less than 48 hours before MAPFRE Stadium's parking lots opened for tailgating on Friday morning, nearly 12 hours before a massive World Cup qualifier kicked off between the United States and Mexico. The campaign had carried an angry, divisive tone from start to finish, with immigration, border security and America's cultural diversity proving particular flashpoints.
There were real worries that this edition of USMNT vs. El Tri might turn out to be a much angrier version of the border clasico millions of North American soccer fans have grown up cherishing. Ugly chants had been proposed in less tolerant corners of the internet. Some even feared violence before or after the crucial Hexagonal opener unfolded on the pitch.
Would the contentious political zeitgeist lurch headlong into this occasion, just as it had already invaded so many other areas of American life over the past year-plus?
“I'm hoping not. I'm coming with the expectation that it won't, but I'm also prepared that it might happen, to hear some things,” says Roger Ramirez, a University of Akron law student clad in a white-and-blue US national team jersey with a large beer cooler at his feet. “While I'm hoping it doesn't happen, I'm not going to say I don't expect it.”
Ramirez had just hauled the cooler across the parking lot with the help of Andres Diaz, who is bedecked in Mexico's signature green jersey, an El Tri scarf and straw sombrero. The duo wear the contrasting colors of North America's greatest soccer rivalry, yet bear no bad blood.
They're friends and classmates, both hailing from Mexican-American families but arriving at this matchup from differing soccer narratives. Both men carried a sort of wary optimism with them to this blue-collar stadium.
“I was born in Mexico, I came here when I was four years old. I became a citizen through my dad,” Diaz says. “And I became a Mexican soccer fan because that's what I grew up watching in the '90s, watching Club America, Chivas.
“Even though I consider myself a proud American, for soccer purposes, I feel strongly with Mexico and that's why I support them.”
Ramirez's story is similar, but different.
“I was born here, but I'm a first-generation American,” he says. “My family is from Mexico and normally I support Mexico when they play, but when it's US vs. Mexico, I'm USA first. When I was born and raised, my mother was all, 'We speak English at home. You've got to integrate yourself into society.'
“So I think probably that's what put [US] over Mexico as far as supporting teams. If Mexico is playing, I'm always going to be rooting for them, but my heart is here in America.”
It’s a tug of war felt in increasingly personal terms as years and games pass and each country and their respective soccer cultures become intrinsically linked. But how personal would it get in Columbus?
Would a hard-fought election be gasoline poured on a smoldering fire? Would our worst fears be justified? Or might all that pregame hand-wringing be misplaced, post-election cynicism wiped away by two sets of fans who refused to allow a cultural wedge to be driven between them?
US SOCCER FEDERATION PRESIDENT SUNIL GULATI WAS PEPPERED with election-related questions in a media roundtable on Friday afternoon. All week, players and coaches from both teams were asked about the prospect of unsightly political intrusions on the game. The American Outlaws supporters group took a range of pregame precautions to drive home the importance of respect and tolerance to the 8,000-plus members who would flock to MAPFRE to cheer the home side.
But as kickoff neared, the masses that gathered for breeze-blown tailgating underneath a spectacular cloud-streaked sunset showed why this modern rivalry is different from others, and even different from its own antagonistic past. And in the process, they revealed a glimpse of a modern, diverse, tolerant United States that went mostly unseen by the national political media over more than a year of primaries and debates and attack ads and angry soundbites.
Clad in a 2002-era US jersey and a red, white and blue luchador's mask, taco clutched in one hand and Mexican beer in the other, Mark Anderson provides a curious sight for passers-by on the way to MAPFRE's main gates.
He had gratefully accepted the taco from a stranger wrapped in the Mexican flag, its contents freshly plucked off a smoking grill as mariachi music blared nearby. Despite the loud music and contrasting allegiances, the two men chat at length before Anderson rejoined his companions.
“I'm from Indianapolis. My father is Peruvian,” he says. “We always host a tailgate at our soccer games where we cook tacos out in front of the stadium and we give them to people for donations to a soccer charity. So when I see people eating tacos and loving soccer, that's my heart. That's my people, that's my passion.
“Any time I can share a taco and soccer with someone, that's where I'm at.”
“I'M FROM CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO. I LIVE IN EL PASO [Texas, just across the border],” Oscar Garcia says as he eats and drinks with fellow El Tri devotees at the pregame gathering of Pancho Villa's Army, a supporters club of US-based Mexico fans. “I’m 50-50. Being a dual citizen, I’ve been both in the US and Mexico all of my life.”
Garcia's story reflects the manner in which the two nations have become so closely intertwined, in many contexts, over the past two decades.
Not so long ago US-Mexico matches were heated, hateful affairs marked by cheap shots and bad blood. Today the partisan passion on the field and in the stands still burns just as brightly. But large swaths of the two nations have gotten to know one another in a way that has humanized the faces on the other side.
“I was born in the US. Three days after my birth, I was taken to Mexico, where I lived almost all of my youth,” explains Garcia. “I grew up supporting Mexico because that that’s where I lived then and grew up. It stuck in my roots, being Mexican.
“I don’t dislike the US – the US fans here in Columbus have supported us since we got here: hugs, photos, all of that. So I think more than separate, it will unite people from two different cultures in one game.”
Ashley Seibert is surrounded by the colors and symbols of Mexican soccer as she sits in the back of a pickup truck with her fiancé, a native of Guatemala, and the El Tri fans he plays soccer with on the weekends. She herself is wrapped in a US scarf and jacket, however.
“We're both excited about the game, doesn't matter the outcome. In a way, I hope that Mexico at least makes a goal,” she says, flashing a shy smile in recognizance of the home team's “Dos a Cero” history in Columbus.
“I obviously want the United States to win, but I wouldn't be mad if Mexico won, either. It's just a game. It's a sport that actually brings all the different cultures together.”
A few hundred feet to the west, a diminutive woman sells Mexico scarves, several of them draped over each arm and another wrapped around her face. Nervous but polite, she declines a request for an interview, citing her undocumented status.
“Es que tengo una situación,” she says quietly. (“It's just that I have a situation.”)
His beloved El Tri's historical struggles at MAPFRE notwithstanding, Ricardo enjoys life in Columbus. A Mexican immigrant who declines to provide his full name because of his undocumented status, he faces very real consequences from his adopted country's political machinations. But he, too, is eager to set current events aside as he prepares to watch arguably the biggest game on the CONCACAF calendar.
“Sincerely, I hope everybody everybody who’s there can separate sport from politics a little bit,” he says. “I’m on a Facebook group where tons of Columbus Crew fans go, and yeah, there are a couple of people on there who are saying things like, 'We should do a “build a wall” chant' – but there are many, many more who are saying things like, 'You need to stop that [expletive] right now.'
“It’s just one or two disgraceful people who are trying to incite the rest. The majority of fans here are saying that if they’re there at the game and hear anything like that, they’re going to make sure the people disrupting things are removed.”
SINCE 2001, MAPFRE HAS HELD THE STATUS of the USMNT's de facto national stadium, offering a dominantly home-friendly crowd and few seats left for away supporters. Yet El Tri's resourceful faithful came from near and far just the same, whether they had tickets in hand or not.
Pancho Villa's Army leaders estimated that more than 2,000 Mexico fans had found a way to attend the big match in a place that has become synonymous with disappointment and underachievement for their team.
They turned up as pockets of vibrant green scattered among the legions of red, white and blue.
“My husband and I have seats in totally different parts,” says Morena Velasquez as she extends an invite to warm up next to the fire pit helping her and her friends ward off the cold winds at their tailgate. “We’re just planning to stand somewhere together. If that’s not possible, we’re just going to go, and meet here afterwards.”
Born in Mexico, raised in California and Ohio from the age of 3, Velasquez admits that the election cycle has caused stress and sadness, amplified by her experiences on the job for Planned Parenthood, where she provides counseling and health services for Latinas in at-risk communities.
Friday marks her first US-Mexico game at MAPFRE, a spontaneous decision made in search of some simple joy at the end of a turbulent week.
“In soccer we’re all one,” she says. “We’re different teams, but we all have love for the one thing, which I think is what kind of unifies everybody at this moment, all the political stuff aside.”
A few rows over, Scott Brady expresses a similar sentiment, despite arriving at his first USMNT match in full colonial-era garb, complete with tri-corner hat and breeches.
“We were worried that [the election] would change things,” Brady says. “It hasn't, though. The US soccer community is a small community in and of itself. It crosses a lot of boundaries and a lot of platforms. So it's very cool to see the diversity out here.”
Asked to give a prediction of the match's outcome, Brady says he had a dream that the US wins 5-0. He knows it's a longshot scoreline, but he can't help what his subconscious told him.
“We are all giants. And it's not about feeling big, not about having money or fame,” says Luis Rey Martinez when asked about the possible effect of politics on the game. “You are big because you are human – we are all human and all on the same plane.”
An El Tri supporter who traces his roots to Tamaulipas but has lived in Columbus for a quarter-century, Martinez wears a traditional Mexican headdress and a mask teasing President-elect Donald Trump.
“In the stadium, the atmosphere will be beautiful,” Martinez says. “These are two great teams, with great players – and obviously Mexico is going to win.
“For us, just by being here, we already won.”
MARTINEZ WOULD BE PROVEN RIGHT by the taut, dramatic match that unfolded that night. Mexico seized the early advantage before the US stormed back into the ascendancy, only to be undone by a late set-piece header from El Tri icon Rafa Marquez that ended his team's 15-year skid of “Dos a Cero” frustration.
The action on the field held all the cut and thrust everyone has come to expect from US-Mexico meetings. Waves of noise from the home crowd pushed the Yanks forward and cascades of boos greeted El Tri's every move. But when the 22 starters posed for a pregame photo in a spontaneous display of unity and respect, it epitomized the collective mood, far eclipsing a few scattered reports of insults and conflict between fans.
The final score blew away the entrenched history between these adversaries at this venue, and left all wondering what lies ahead in this rivalry. Similarly, the elections just days prior left millions with uncertainty at what the future might hold.
Whatever unfolds in the next chapter of this soccer story, however, will likely transpire not between mortal enemies, but among family, friends, neighbors and peers. And perhaps that evolution hints at a brighter future for a divided nation.
"For me, it was surreal," said Pancho Villa's Army member Zinhue Tinoco of the strange, exhausting week. "Honestly, though, there’s nothing we can do about it right now at this point. We have to move forward.
"Things are going to work out."
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