America Away

by

Given the rich sporting heritage of the United States, there are few times when national pride truly comes into play. Preference for home grown games limits the importance of international competition. Dominance on the track, in the pool, and in a few other Olympic sports helps to forge a veneer of invisibility, maintained by avoiding coverage of “non-American” athletics.

In recent years, Team USA has suffered a few set backs in the core athletic venues. Hiccups in preparation for the basketball team led to embarrassing (though deserved) losses at past Olympic games and World Championships. Baseball too has seen increased global parity. On the world’s biggest stage, the soccer pitch (or football as some prefer), American’s remain nonplused. Success is applauded, but a loss remains to great extent meaningless. Mention of a loss in the press is fleeting. Analysis minimal.

The times are, however, changing. USA Soccer is building. The national team is beginning to show signs of true promise and potential on the world’s biggest stage is becoming more interesting.

This summer’s victory over Spain, during Confederations Cup was heralded as the biggest win in United States soccer history. The 1950 win over England, it must be said, is more myth than memory. Spain, beaten off US soil, was rightfully seen as a major development and boost to national interest in the sport.

Well before the USA upset Spain in South Africa, I had booked a trip to the USA v. Mexico World Cup qualifier at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. There is no doubt the boarder battle with Mexico is the one true American rivalry in Soccer. The rivalry, spurred by several 2-0 US wins over the years (most recently in February’s tie in Columbus, Ohio) and all the things that one could imagine, might make a Mexican fan’s blood boil.

But playing in Mexico City is an altogether different challenge. Azteca stadium is a place of footballing lore: it is the place of Maradona’s “hand of god” and cathedral to the game, seating close to 100,000 fans. As an American, no place is farther from home. Azteca is a battleground – and one where the stars and stripes rarely come out on top..

My experience as a sports’ fan has brought me to several “hostile” environments. I have cheered Georgetown basketball in almost every Big East Arena. I wore a Danny Ferry Spurs’ jersey to the 2003 NBA Finals at Continental Airlines (now Izod) Arena. In each venue I was met with suspicion, but ultimately only meek insults and weak taunts. I’d never truly been the enemy before.

I wanted that feeling. Azteca promised to fulfill the need.

Match day, Wednesday August 5, 2009.

To get the full USA  “Away” experience, my travel companions and I chose to join an official support tour put together by Ole Ole. This provided drinks, food, and transport before and after the match.

It also made us an open and clear target to Mexican supporters.

Having grown up reading John King’ books (and here, “England Away”, is best reference), I longed for the camaraderie and pride associated with cheering on the national side.

Our group was intensely excited for the match. These were the rare USA fans who held stake in what transpires on the pitch. They had traveled before. They avidly support their local MLS team for the simple love of soccer.

Decked in jerseys and draped in flags, all together we filled two large coach busses, which with police escort, ferried us from hotel to stadium.

The ride to Azteca, from our hotel, took over an hour. As we approached, the sounds grew louder and the streets filled with men and women dressed in green adidas tops. With kick-off at 3pm, the scene was something akin to a most loved public holiday. Everyone was out and everyone was cheering for the home side.

Our group, excited as it was, appeared a bit ramshackle. They also reflect the odd amalgam of European and South American versions of fandom that infect the American terraces. The songs are mixed. Chants on one side (not unlike those in England) and beating drums on the other. Outfits too show the unease of being a true American fan. Jersey’s are common. So is face paint. One man had a USA tattoo on his neck (and skeletal tattoos on his hands… and a Taylor Swift shirt in his waist band). There’s little consistency in uniform.

The attempt, it seemed, was to put up a National front.

Success in this venture fell a bit flat.

Police found us at our bus parking point and swiftly moved us toward the stadium. The atmosphere was jovial as we traded “fuck yous” with the Mexicans. Nothing was hurled except insult. Once inside, this would change.

EIGHT minutes into the match Charlie Davies scored. The US section erupted. High fives delivered all round. For a brief moment the Stars and Stripes were on top. And then, subtle reminders that we were the away team.

Bottles. Beers. Pieces of plastic. These came fast and furious from all sides. It was the beginning of an onslaught that would follow in waves throughout the remainder of the 90 minutes.

While not terrifying, these moments were uncomfortable and constant reminders that we were, dressed in red and separated from the majority of the crowd, the minority. A small boy sat beside me, and I was genuinely concerned for his well being.

Mexican goals brought with them furious taunts and projectiles toward the US support. As the match neared end, the celebration focused on further insult to the Americans. Riot police surround the section, pulling us from Azteca and halting Mexican exit. Fans in Green spat on us from above.

The moving target marched from stadium to bus suffering worse than we had inside and much worse than we had on arrival. We were stuffed into the buses and told to close all the curtains. Once filled, the buses were whisked away by escort. The return trip to the hotel lasting just 15 minutes.

While fear of true harm never entered the mind, the notion that we were unwanted was clear. American fans away expected good treatment, expected to feel as they might going one state away for a baseball game. Instead, they found bottles and insults hurled their way. The ultimate insult – we’d been spit on.

To some, this was a reprehensible act.

For me, the type of thing that made being “America Away” true.


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