Saturday's soccer match between the U.S. and Mexico is about much more than just sport. With racism and xenophobia reaching a deafening shrill in the Republican primary with Donald Trump, Mexico is rolling into this weekend's game with the goal of setting a few things straight.
“We are bringing our BEST to teach them a lesson,” says 23-year-old Mexican American soccer fan Felipe Favela. “There’s more politics in this game than actual politics between the two countries.”
Favela, who was born and raised in San Diego by parents from Tijuana, has always viewed soccer as the great equalizer— a way for Mexico to get back at the gringos. He says when he was growing up kids used to tease him for being a proud Mexican but going to school in the U.S. to get a better education.
“The American kids would ask, ‘If your country is so great, how come you go to school here?’ Favela said. But when it came to soccer, Mexico always dominated the U.S.—a point of great pride for Favela.
That was then. Now the teams are more evenly matched, and Mexico is going to have to fight even harder to reassert its old domination on the field. But for some, the hateful rhetoric spewed by Donald Trump in the Republican primary, should give the Aztecs all the motivation they need to bring their A-game.
“I get goosebumps thinking about the game,” Favela says. “Donald Trump is up in the polls, which means a large percentage of Americans are supporting his racist rants. Considering the negative comments made about Mexicans and other immigrants, I think even those Latinos who [normally] root for the U.S. should now root for Mexico.”
In some way, the hype surrounding this weekend's game—a playoff match at California’s Rose Bowl Stadium for a spot at the 2017 Confederations Cup— started years ago, when Mexico was still the region's soccer powerhouse and the U.S. was struggling to answer the question: How can the wealthiest nation on earth, with 300 million people, not have 11 decent soccer players?
But through years of training, scouting and economic investment in the U.S. soccer program, Team USA has steadily grown and developed into a respectable squad—one that can now sting the Aztecs and any team that lets their guard down. Mexico's long-held soccer superiority seemingly came to an end when the U.S. knocked them out of the 2002 World Cup. Now it's a much more competitive rivalry.
History and politics cast long shadows on the field every time the two squads meet. For many Mexicans who grew up learning the U.S. “stole” more than half of their country's territory, the matches are an opportunity for justicia divina, or divine justice.
Now, pathetically, there's also the Trump factor.
In Mexico, some are promoting Saturday's game as a chance for the national soccer team to stick it to The Donald for his racist rants against Mexicans. One of the country’s largest television conglomerates, TV Azteca, released the following ad:
The players themselves have stayed out of politics, but have played into the heated rivalry by trolling each other on social media. U.S. captain Michael Bradley uploaded the following image to his Instagram referencing a previous 2-0 win against Mexico:
And former U.S. star Landon Donovan, who speaks fluent Spanish, picked a fight with a Mexican fan:
The fans can also get carried away. In previous matches between the two North American rivals there have been instances of Mexican fans chanting “Oooo saaa maaa! Oooo saaa Maaa!,” in reference to Osama Bin Laden.
The games can also lead to serious identity issues for many Mexican-Americans who suffer a bit of anxiety over whether to root for the team of their parents' homeland or that of their country. The dilemma was popularized in a McDonald’s World Cup ad last year:
But not everyone deliberates when it comes to team loyalties.
“I’m a huge fan of both the U.S. and Mexico, but when it comes down to it I chose Mexico because it's in my blood," says 24-year-old soccer fan Omar López who lives in L.A. "I'm first generation; my family still has that Mexican pride.”
Others, meanwhile, have a different definition of the "home team."
“I’ve always cheered for the U.S. just because I was born here and I always felt we were the actual underdogs,” says 23-year-old Mexican-American Garrett Bradbury who lives in Huntington Beach, California and whose grandmother was born in Guadalajara. “I don't think people should switch for who they are cheering for in this upcoming game, but I do understand the growing strain with the political and cultural situation.”
While Bradbury says he's more of a fan of the sport than the political implications of it, in the end he thinks the hype and background noise is good for the game because it gets more people interested in soccer. Plus it might just be the perfect medium for all these emotions -and politics- to be channeled in a healthy way.
“Soccer has always bridged differences and hopefully this game will do something similar,” he said.
The USA vs. Mexico soccer match will take place on Oct. 10 at 6 pm at the Rose Bowl. Fusion will be there to cover the event.