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Mexico fans will miss Donovan

When Landon Donovan failed to make Jurgen Klinsmann's list of 23 U.S. players for the World Cup, it was perhaps predictable that the topic would be discussed at length on American social media. It might have surprised some, though, to realize that the name of the versatile midfielder/forward was a top trending topic in Mexico, the great rival of the United States, as well. Newspapers also rushed stories of Donovan's exclusion on to the front section of the sports page. In the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, where public conversation often centers around soccer, I could hear Donovan discussions at the local diner. Most centered around how Klinsmann had erred, and would regret his decisions. Polls published online also expressed support for Donovan. Many spoke of Donovan as a "beloved enemy" or an admired rival. For Mexicans and Mexican-Americans on both sides of the border, Donovan has for so long been an icon of American soccer that they dubbed him, "Captain America". It was immaterial to most that Donovan was not actually the U.S. team captain that often. But even as many who loved El Tri booed and chanted against Donovan, there was also an appreciation of his skills from the same people. Donovan's heritage was Irish-American, but he grew up in Southern California, speaking playground Spanish and learning the game with a distinct Latin flair. His control on the dribble, his cutbacks, his quick passes, were skills that Mexicans could appreciate, because they valued such ability in their own players. Mexicans could get Donovan, in a way that often his fellow Americans did not. They understood his superstition of crossing himself before a penalty kick; they knew why he raced into open spaces instead of chasing the ball; they admired, for his small size, his eerily accurate heading ability. Even at the moment when he enraged the entire country, nailing a header to help eliminate Mexico in the 2002 World Cup, taking off his shirt to celebrate and screaming into the camera, 'Where is Mexico?" they could understand him, because he said it in Spanish. At one point, a Mexican lottery company hired Donovan for a local commercial where he capitalized on his infamy as the country's antagonist. The US-Mexico rivalry had long been a fierce once, but it entered a new golden age during the Donovan era, energizing fans on both sides. Gold Cup finals became tense, heated affairs, and World Cup qualifying matches were statement games for the two teams. At stake was an imaginary crown neither side could ever really claim permanently - the king of CONCACAF. Donovan was involved in nearly every game, important or not, between the two sides. He racked up goals and assists, but at times, El Tri would get the better of the USA team and that victory would be all the sweeter if it was at Donovan's expense. Somewhere down the line, Donovan changed as well. He acknowledged that Latino fans, many of them Mexican, tended to recognize him more in L.A. and ask for autographs. He relaxed more giving interviews in Spanish, allowing his humor and personality to show. He considered possibly joining Club America.

Speaking to Spanish-language reporters after he returned to Los Angeles, Donovan himself spoke of the support that he had received from many El Tri fans after Klinsmann's decision. "I got many messages on Facebook from a lot of people in Mexico," Donovan told the press. "They said, 'When you play against us, we don't like you, but we're very sad for you and we have a lot of respect for you.'" The Donovan situation also hits home for some Mexican fans bitter that their best player, Carlos Vela, refuses to rejoin the national team. Donovan's willingness to always represent the USA resonates with them. However, the event has also created new appreciation for El Tri coach Miguel Herrera. He has shown that he respects the team's veterans, and yet shook up the squad without jettisoning the experienced members who are still contributing. He has gone out of his way to communicate with players, let everyone know lineups early, and build a bond of transparency and trust in the squad and with the public that is rare. Perhaps it's hard for Mexico fans to believe that Donovan is no longer effective when they witnessed his last goal against El Tri only in September. Goals against Mexico bookend both the start, and perhaps, the finish of his international career. It's the end of an era, perhaps, there even the most passionate El Tri fan will miss hating Donovan a little.