Nostalgia : México x USA world cup qualifier at Azteca March 27 2005 Part 1

Recycling a very old post of mine.

The Azteca Experience - 1

Certain events I would have blogged if I had a blog at the time. Here is one of those.

Sunday March 27th 2005
Mexico City.

The Preamble:
So the day had finally arrived. Waited for this since the schedule for World cup qualifiers was drawn up in mid-2004. USA @ Mexico. Cant get any bigger in these parts of the earth. The two giants of the CONCACAF squaring off pretty early in the schedule. Though both are assured of their places in the World Cup Germany 2006, its a derby game. Reputations are made and destroyed in such games. Bought the tickets the first hour they went on sale.
Location: Just behind the team dug-outs.

Recent results indicated the upper hand US has been enjoying over their southern neighbor. The most important result being the 2-0 victory they have achieved in the 2nd round of the World Cup 2002, when they tactically outplayed an ineffective Mexico with two quick counter-strikes and ended the promising show thus far of Mexico who topped their group beating up on Croatia and Ecuador and almost beat Italy who they drew with.

Lot changed for Mexican football since that fateful day. New coach. Lots of new faces in the team. Change of guard. But the wounds of that defeat still linger on for the likes of Rafa Marquez the skipper and a FC Barcelona regular. Both teams made good start to their Qualifying campaigns having won their first couple of matches with ease.

The Venue:

Estadio Azteca, Santa Ursula, Delegacion Tlalpan. Mexico D.F

One of the biggest and marquee football stadia in the world. Can hold upto to 120000 people and none will have a bad seat to complain of. Very well designed and very very well maintained, the Azteca hosted the 1968 Olympics, WC 1970 and WC 1986. Perched about 5000 ft above sea-level, the rarefied air of Mexico City and Azteca form the bedrock on which Mexico constructed their impressive World Cup resume. Since the 1950s when the qualifiers have started they have lost only once in Azteca. In 2001 to Costa Rica(You could pretty easily guess that the coach got fired after that loss ;-) )

Rarefied air along with the smog that's around Mexico city is the recipe for disaster for the visiting teams. Usually by the 30 min mark, players start feeling the effects like dehydration, heavy breathing which lead to lots of physical challenges even the fittest cant beat. Over the years teams have tried lots of tricks and methods to find a way around the problems caused by altitude. The US team trained for 3 weeks somewhere in Colorado which is more or less at the same elevation as Mexico City. But nothing like playing in altitude in front a hostile crowd of more than 100000.

The Trek:

I live in the North-northeast of the city and the Azteca is in the very south of the city. So its gonna take a while for me to reach there. The kick-off is set for just after 12 noon. Worst time to play in smog/heat/altitude. Now that's what is home-field advantage(as opposed to the rotational system of awarding test matches to venues in India).With my camera, Mexico jersey, a sun cap and a bottle of water and some candies set out the long trip to Azteca at 10 am. Took a bus to reach the nearest Metro station, Metro Cuatro Caminos. From there took the Metro to Tasquena. The train was not crowded yet. But there was a sea of green around me (including me) and some painted faces, lots of happy kids and their parents taking care of them. After about 40 minutes reached Tasquena. Had to take another Light Train from Tasquena to the Azteca. Now this train was full and overflowing with fans. The sea of green suddenly seemed to have tripled in size.
Unable to get into to the first few of these light trains, finally force my way into the 3rd train and after 10 minutes, Viola ! I am in front of the huge Estadio Azteca. Lots of police in riot gear, some of them mounted on horses were seen every where. And finally I spotted some American fans. Wearing some 'Sams Army' T-shirts which, to be frank were very lame.
Spotted some ESPN/ABC cameramen filming the crowds moving towards the gates. Heartily booed them and showed thumbs down.
Finally converged near the gates and its something I have never seen. Everybody in green. Faces painted. Hair-dyed in red white and green. Trumpets. Wow !! Having seen Clemson football on a weekly basis never seen such a scene. With all due respects, all college football rivalries in the US cant get close the atmosphere around here. May be an India-Pakistan match but never been to one so cant comment.
I dived right into the party. Got my face painted. And bought an ugly sounding trumpet. And some other assorted items. Ahora estoy Listo (Now I am ready).
After a going through multiple security checks, I am off to find my seats. Its 1140 when I finally found my seats and sat there. Azteca is fast filling up. The chairs here are yellow and red. Every minute its more green and less yellow/red. The players seemed to have been warming up for a while and left the field just after I entered.

La Aficion - The Fans:

The Mexican fans 'La Aficion' are a fickle lot. When they support their team, you cant find more passionate/ardent supporters but when they are angry with the team or the coach due to some of his selections and formations they can get on the nerve of the coach. La Aficion was a bit nervous before the match and kind of subdued due to the match coinciding with Easter week and Easter Sunday(Santa Domingo). A more precise reason would be that of seeing their hegemony challenged by their hated neighbors. There was big banner posted in the stands behind the south goal say "La Gigante no ha muerto" meaning the Giant is not dead yet. Which signifies two things. The acceptance of the grave threat they are facing as the regional giants and the defiance. La Aficion wants this one badly. And they are ready with all the drums trumpets and war paints. The Sombreros (the big hats) and the mariachis and the flags and the jerseys above all, the heart and emotion.

The TV:

Now this happened while I was at the game. Recorded it thro the TV tuner card of my laptop :-). The pregame festivities started at 10 am. There are two competing TV companies in Mexico and both show the game simultaneously. All games of the National team are shown by both. I think Doordarshan would want such a rule in India. Both networks hired a lot of helicopters and the coverage was real cool.
One of the coolest thing was they should the speech of Bruce Arena, US coach to his players. Trying to talk up the disrespect shown be Mexico to US even after the beat them in the World cup 2002. And that they will break this hoodoo of Azteca and some expletives to the crowd and all usual pep-rally stuff.
The Mexican dressing room was more light-hearted. Lots of smiles and laughs around. You could see the intensity in the faces of the senior members of the team like the captain Rafa Marquez and the veteran goal-keeper Oswaldo Sanchez.

Pre-Match Analysis:

So after reading all that's above and you are still not bored, that means either you absolutely have nothing to do or you need some help/counseling. The US has always been a defence-first team. Defend, defend and defend more. If the opposition gets frustrated and sends more men upfront, pounce on any lose balls and hit on the counter. So a lot of their games are usually dull and drab 1-0s or 2-1s. Mexico on the other hand are very good with the ball. They would try to control the ball from the midfield and the use the wings to send crosses to their central forwards. A more classic approach that has more risks but generally you can see pleasing football. This is why they hate to lose to US. The idea that US is technically inferior when comes to the ball-skills or individual talents. But they defend well as a team and get the results. Somewhat like how Greece won the Euro 2004. But such tactics can only get you so far and the real good teams will pick you apart easily. After that success, Greece failed miserably in the Olympics at home and are just about alive in their bid to qualify for the WC 2006.

More Preamble:

US has never won a game in Azteca. Their best result is a 0-0 draw they secured in 1997(guess what happened to the Mexican coach after that ;-) ). And they have scored a grand total of 1 goal in here. But the prematch hype surrounded around how US has broken the domination of Mexico in this region. Hard to argue against that from the recent results. And how they have the team to tame the Mexicans in their own house this time around.


Mexico lined up in their favorite formation of 3-4-1-2 with Rafa Marquez pulling the strings from the back, 4 mid-fielders 2 of whom are the tough-as-nails variety whose only job is to win the ball. The other two on the wings will push forward with Cuautehmoc Blanco (genial but also temperamental) providing the service to the two centre forwards Borgetti and Fonseca. Pretty compact formation this.
USA also lined up in their usual formation for away games and against the bigger teams. 4-5-1. A flat 4 line at the back with two real big central defenders and then a packed mid-field with Claudio Reyna orchestrating the transition from offense to defence and their most offensive minded player Landon Donovan on the right supporting the lone striker Eddie Johnson(who by the way is a very big and physical, pacy but lacking ball skills and the ability to be in right positions without the ball). This formation is meant to break the flow of the opposition in the midfield and frustrate them into mistakes.

Just Before Kick-off:

The teams line up. National anthems played. Some shouts of o5ama during the US anthem. Oh by the way, there were about 100-150 US supporters all of them in one of the corners of the lower levels. Glad I am nowhere near them. Cant describe what will be thrown at them if US were to score a goal..
Close to 110,000 are ready now. 109,850 supporting Mexico :). Trumpets are in full blow. Drums and anything that can generate noise is being used. USA is defending north goal and will attack from left to right.

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