On the sweltering streets of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazilians are so sure of winning their sixth World Cup that they have already started planning the parades. In Germany, supporters from Munich to Stuttgart are dusting off their best beer steins for the party they believe is only weeks away. And in England, where the game was invented, not even a humbling draw with its former colony can kill the buzz brewing from pub to pub in anticipation of the trophy.
But in Mexico, where fútbol is no less of an institution, fans are fixated on a decidedly less ambitious goal: outperforming the United States. Once the continent’s uncontested soccer superpower, Mexico has begun to look over its shoulder—or across the border—at its rapidly improving northern neighbor. America’s ascendance began when it hosted the tournament in 1994, reaching the second round alongside Mexico. But as the Yanks have improved in recent years, the rivalry between the two countries has heated up. In the 1990s, the Stars and Stripes started winning games against the Aztec warriors. And in 2002, the unimaginable happened: the U.S. knocked Mexico out of the World Cup on its way to its best-ever performance. In fact, despite an overall losing record against their archrivals, the Yanks are now 10–4–2 against Mexico in the past 10 years.
American sports fans hardly seemed to notice, but for Mexicans the early exit in South Korea was almost apocalyptic. “That defeat really shook Mexico,” said Walter González, a sportswriter for Mexican soccer Web site MedioTiempo.com. “We were used to thinking, OK, we’ve got a weaker economy and we’re never going to win at basketball or football, but we will always be better at soccer.’ So when the U.S. beat us, Mexico went crazy, and the rivalry really took off.”
In this year’s World Cup, the enmity is more intense than ever. Mexico is still sour over qualifying in second place for the tournament, finishing behind—you guessed it—the United States. To add insult to injury, Mexico is currently ranked three spots below the gringos in the latest FIFA poll. Bookies even have Mexico listed at longer odds than the U.S. to win the competition.
The days of easy wins over the Americans may be over, but that fact has only escalated the feud. Here in Mexico, the rivalry between the two teams exceeds any Lakers-Celtics, Yankees–Red Socks fervor back in the States. “The U.S. is without a doubt the team that Mexicans hate the most,” said González. “Not only do Mexicans truly believe that their team will finish in a higher spot than the American squad, but they really don’t like to see the U.S. do well.” The enmity between the teams is hard to miss: during the 2002 World Cup match, one Mexican player threatened to find and kill the mother of Landon Donovan, now the American captain. A few years later, Mexican goalie Oswaldo Sánchez insulted Donovan’s mother in a magazine interview. Donovan retaliated by not-so-discreetly urinating on the sidelines in front of 60,000 Mexican fans. (Sadly, this incident is no longer available on YouTube.)
But American improvement and mutual insults are not the only reasons that Mexicans are hoping their team outlasts the U.S. in South Africa. Politics also plays a big part. From swine flu to the drug war, Mexico is tired of being blamed for problems extending beyond its borders. Most important, the recent wave of anti-immigration legislation in the U.S.—kicked off this summer by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer—has rekindled nationalism on both sides of the Rio Grande. “The new law has definitely given a sharper edge to the competition of who does better at the World Cup,” said González.
Perhaps the final straw for many Mexicans is that despite closing its borders, the U.S. is more eager than ever to scout for transnational talent. Two of the American team’s most exciting players—Hércules Gómez and José Torres—are Mexican-American. “These types of players used to fall through the cracks in the U.S. but not anymore,” said Steve Wilson, author of The Boys From Little Mexico, a new book about a Latino boys team in Oregon.
Ironically, just as immigration has intensified the rivalry, so too immigration could ultimately extinguish it. Mexican-Americans have already Latinized the Yanks’ traditionally rigid style of play, making the American team more attractive to immigrants. In fact, both Donovan and fellow attacking midfielder Clint Dempsey show the quick feet and creative style inspired by the heavily Latino communities they grew up in. Some day in the not-too-distant future, the Mexican and American teams could actually look and play a lot alike. “We tend to draw black and white lines in terms of people being fans of Mexico or America, but it isn’t like that at all,” said Wilson of the immigrants he followed for his book. “Although most of the guys heavily favor Mexico, if Mexico gets knocked out of the World Cup, the U.S. is going to be their next favorite.”