Commentary: The time I left Azteca in a paddy wagon
(On August 12, 2009 I attended the USA-Mexico World Cup Qualifier at the famed Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. I wrote the following ahead of the 2012 friendly between the two border rivals, and am re-posting today ahead of tonight's WCQ - 8:30 p.m MT, ESPN and Univision)
It was barely 15 seconds after I got off the train at the Estadio Azteca exit when I felt a splash on my right calf. I reached down and felt the liquid running down my leg. On the ground next to my shoe was a small, ripped, plastic sandwich-type bag. At that point, it was too late to realize what I thought I was wiping off. All I could think of as I held out my hand before wiping it on my shorts was, welcome to Estadio Azteca!
I consider myself fortunate to have attended hundreds of soccer games in quite a few countries around the world. But for me, none of those games compare to my experience in August 2009, when I traveled to Mexico City to attend the U.S. versus Mexico World Cup Qualifier in possibly the most intimidating stadium in the world.
A month before, I had worked the Gold Cup Final at Giants Stadium, where Mexico trounced a young U.S. side 5-0. That was my seventh USA-Mexico 'cap,' but the first time I had ever seen the U.S. lose in the rivaly. Until that point, the U.S. were 5-0-1 against their southern neighbor with me in the stadium.
Not long after the Final, I bought a flight to Mexico and arranged for a credential to the Qualifier. I had been to Mexico numerous times before and to games in Mexico City and Monterrey. I always appreciated the kindness of the people I met, the beauty of the places I visited, and the passion of the fans at the stadiums. But this would be the first time I'd be going to support their biggest rival, the USA. Having read multiple accounts from players that played in those games, I thought I was prepared for what to expect. It turned out to be one of the best atmospheres and home-field advantages I've ever witnessed - in any sporting event.
I found a hotel in the Zona Rosa neighborhood where I connected with fans from around the country that I knew from MLS and other U.S. games. I opted to pass on using the credential and the next morning met about 60 fans in the lobby of the hotel to begin the walk to the first metro station that would lead us to Azteca.
We chanted as we walked and listened to the friendly ribbing from Mexico fans that came out of the shops. We had to change trains three times on the way to Azteca, in all about an hour trip. The cars were full throughout, with Mexico and U.S. fans trading songs, as well as more friendly jabs. A small bridge connected the Azteca subway stop to the stadium. This was the spot where the bag exploded on my leg.
Beyond the subway turnstile, a ramp packed with vendors led down to a main entrance. It seemed that every tent was selling green jerseys and Mexico flags. It was three hours before kickoff, but there were thousands of Mexico fans already waiting at the gate. Quickly, I realized the difference from fans in the city, to fans at the game.
More U.S. fans arrived separately but quickly gravitate to our group. Soon, a TV camera spotted the little bit of red outside the gates and asked the U.S. fans to start a chant. Some responded, but that also got the waiting Mexico fans engaged. Soon we feel the massive presence of thousands of fans surrounding us. This was not the train, we were now at their house. We quietly move to the side, knowing we'd be waiting a while to follow that crowd in.
And then, we see about 30 or so police in gear approach us from inside the gates. Concerned for our safety, they bring over two gate attendants and instruct them to let us in. Once all the U.S. fans came through the gate, we were escorted around to another side of the stadium. With the presence of security, we chanted as we walked while Mexico fans took photos of our parade.
We were led to a single gate - next to larger turnstyles for the general public. Under the concourse, police frisked all of us before letting us up to the seats.
Through the tunnel, we get our first view of the inside of this massive stadium. As a kid I remember watching the 1986 World Cup on TV, so I looked down and tried to envision exactly where Diego Maradona scored his 'hand of God' goal and then his famous masterpiece slalom against England. So much history in that stadium!
It was now 2.5 hours before kickoff, and the upper decks already had thousands of people in place. We were in an upper corner. Security with shields and helmets surrounded our entire two sections: on the left (along a fence), to the right (separated by an aisle), and below. Any U.S. fans that entered the stadium was escorted to our section.
Our group grew to about 400 people by kickoff. Considering the stadium holds more than 105,000, we were slightly outnumbered. As a precaution, stadium security wouldn't allow the huge U.S. flag to be unveiled during the national anthem.
I have no idea if they played the FIFA anthem or any music when the starting XI walked out. The stadium was so loud that you couldn't hear anything but the deafening, buzzing noise. It was a massive beehive. We did our best to sing the U.S. National anthem, a capella. Keep in mind we were so high up, I can only imagine how much louder it had to be at field level.
Once the game started all eyes were on the action way below. The U.S. scored first and our section went nuts. It took a few seconds to realize how many cups had flown our way. Some people had small scratches, and many others were soaked. Still, it was an incredible feeling to cheer while the rest of the massive stadium went silent.
But when Mexico tied it, the roar and celebration felt like a volcano erupting. It was tense, yet incredible to witness that passion. That said, we welcomed the halftime break.
The tension kept building on and off the field throughout the second half. And when Mexico finally took the lead with less than ten minutes to play, I finally decided to sit down and cover my head. You would dodge stuff flying from the right, and get hit from the left or below. I don't even know if the stuff was being thrown at us, or just up in the air in celebration.
A few minutes later, security tried to get the U.S. fans out of the sections and underneath to the ramps. I ask one security guy why, and he told me it was because they didn''t think they'd be able to hold back the Mexico fans much longer. Some people took the advice, but many of us decide to wait. I stood behind one of those cops with a shield and then sprinted underneath as the whistle blew.
We waited a while and then the cops decided to get us out of the stadium. A good portions of U.S. fans had come on buses, and the cops thought we had all arrived together. They led the entire group down the ramps together. Along the way, they stopped the Mexico fans so we could get through. We were a quiet group, walking almost in single file, dodging stuff flying from above. Collectively we knew that there was nothing we could say, so we just accepted their jeers, which were intense, to say the least!
Once at the bottom of the ramp, we could see the corral the police had made for us, a human pen to walk within before allowed the Mexico fans out of the stadium. Now a bit calmer, we took pictures of the Mexico fans and them of us. Interestingly, there were Mexico fans that had come on the U.S. buses, so they also got to walk within our 'protection.'
Some fans seemed angry, but as we walked away from the stadium, the crowd was less intimidating. I really think it was the 'mob-mentality' inside the stadium that caused fear, or intimidation, because once outside, it was more or less die-hard soccer fans celebrating their team's win.
Once the buses picked up some of the red-clan fans, the cops escorted the rest of us back across the stadium lots. They told us they did not feel it was safe to allow us to get on the subway at the stadium, so they took us to waiting paddy wagons. Happy to say, it was my first time in a police vehicle of any sort - in any country.
We didn't really know where we were being taken to, but it was a fun ride, with U.S. fans now comfortably cheering out the windows of the 'friendly' confines of a police bus. That didn't stop some Mexico fans from continuing to throw stuff and insults, but we had a ton of fun watching from inside.
After about 20-30 minutes we stopped at a metro station, where the cops felt it was 'safe' to let us on our own. From here, we took the subways to our various stops, laughing and talking about the experience we just went through.
The main plaza in the Zona Rosa - at the statue of the Angel de la Independencia - was packed with what some media estimated to be 10-15K fans. We changed out of the colors, and went the other way for a large group dinner.
As I look back, the passion displayed by the Mexican fans throughout the day, but particularly inside Azteca - was really just amazing. A home-field advantage unlike any other, anywhere.
It was an unfortunate result for the U.S. team, but an incredible experience for me. One that I'll never forget, or regret.