Estadio Azteca might be, simultaneously, the best and worst place to be an American soccer fan.
The venerable Mexico City stadium is, of course, the de facto national stadium for the Mexican men’s national team. And Azteca has historically provided a home-field advantage for El Tri against their CONCACAF rivals in the U.S.
The U.S. and Mexico have jointly represented CONCACAF since the U.S.-hosted ’94 World Cup. However, Mexico struggled to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, in part due to only mustering a 0-0 draw against the U.S. in the Hexagonal qualifying match in Azteca. Sunday's qualifier (8:30 pm ET | FS1, Univision, UDN), by contrast, comes in a cycle where the Americans are in a more precarious position.
And for some fans who have made the trip before – detailing an in-stadium hostility that is legendary – there’s no place they’d rather be.
“There’s a different intensity, real passion, even hatred,” says Christopher Talamantez, vice president of the American Outlaws chapter in Seattle, who traveled to Azteca in 2013 and is returning for next week’s match. “I say it has to be on your bucket list even if you’re lukewarm about soccer.”
Christopher Talamantez & Co. cheer on the U.S. amid a sea of Mexico fans. Courtesy: Christopher Talamantez
His 2013 experience, echoed by others who made the trip, includes fan buses getting a police escort from the hotel to the stadium, going to and from their section under the cover of police riot shields, and then standing and cheering in a sliver of the stadium’s upper bowl. Once there, they stood and cheered behind fencing topped with barbed wire, occasionally pelted with food, soda, and as Talamantez put it, “what we hoped was beer.”
Though Talamantez’s advice to the treatment is “Don’t get mad; it’s part of the game,” he and fellow fans couldn’t resist a little post-game gloating after the ’13 draw. “We relished the moment, because a tie was a victory, and their fans clearly defeated. When we were near the bus, we did start a chant of ‘You’re not going to Brazil.’”
“We got escorted by a force I haven’t seen since I was in Kuwait,” notes Jack Closson, a retired Marine sergeant who is on a second-straight quest to attend all 10 Hex qualifying matches, home-and-away.
A barrier of policemen in riot gear separates two boisterous fan groups. Courtesy: Jack Closson
“My expectations were we were going into a war zone,” says Clifford Alejos, a longtime Red Bulls fan who also made the pilgrimage in 2013. He reports that Mexico City itself was cosmopolitan and welcoming, praising its culture and food. He and his wife even stuck around after the U.S-Mexico match for a Liga MX contest later in the week, finding Azteca more welcoming that it had been for the rivalry game. He even reports that he and Mexican fans showed respect to each other over post-match tacos at a nearby restaurant.
But during the game itself? “It was hostile and I loved every minute of it.”
Christine Swanson, a U.S. fan based in South Florida, attended a 2001 qualifier in Azteca, buying a travel package from now-defunct soccervacations.com. Their flight to Mexico City ended at a gate near the arriving American team; she recalls Mexican fans seeking autographs from American players and camera crews capturing their arrival.
But of course, in the stadium, it was different. She remembers about 120 American fans from her tour contingent grouped together behind one of the goals, weathering various projectiles throughout the match. “They had adding machine tape rolls,” she says. “Those really pack a punch!” The match, though close, ended in a 1-0 loss on the strength of a 16th-minute Jared Borgetti header.
U.S. fans get a close-up view of the action in a 2001 qualifier. Courtesy: Selena Connealy
Brian Aleman, just 27 but a lifelong fan, witnessed history in 2012, attending Azteca for the U.S. team’s first-ever victory in Mexico. “When [Michael] Orozco scored,” he notes, referring to the defender’s 80th-minute tap-in -- the match’s only goal -- “the vibe in the stadium really changed, in what had already been a chippy game.”
He exulted as the lone American in a section of Mexican fans, near but not with the AOs, wearing a 2006-era Landon Donovan American jersey. Though he received a decent amount of dousing for his trouble, he doesn’t regret showing his support or his choice of jerseys in that moment. “I like to ruffle feathers,” he laughs.
Dan Wiersema, who handles communications for American Outlaws, notes that this year’s allotment of 400 travel packages sold out, adding, “There has been unprecedented interest and excitement around this away trip. We probably could've sold out twice.”