Mexico City anticipates key clash
MEXICO CITY -- There are a few things to remember when you're making your way to what is arguably the largest city in the world. First, don't drink the water (unless you're a big fan of bathrooms). Second, don't watch the Denzel Washington movie, "Man on Fire." Doing the former will leave you in the bathroom, doing the latter will leave you way too paranoid to enjoy the Mexican capital.
I made the mistake of doing the latter a few weeks ago, having no idea of the movie's premise (the movie starts out by pointing out how many kidnappings take place here and centers around the abduction of a young girl). Needless to say I cast a wary eye on the city on my way from the airport to my hotel Wednesday night as one of the first members of the American media to arrive. I felt proud about that fact until I read that Paul Oberjuerge of the San Bernardino County Sun is driving 1,800 miles from California to get here and chronicling his journey. He deserves credit for the idea and a prize if he pulls it off. The odds might be against him though. He is the same writer who left his laptop in a South Korean taxi three years ago (and in yet another example of how great the South Korean people were at the World Cup, the laptop was returned to him).
Here is a look at my first 24 hours in Mexico City:
Thursday, 12:30 a.m.-The first thing you noticed, aside from the choking stench given off by a nearby oil refinery, was the relatively calm atmosphere in the city. My cab driver pointed out that this being Semana Santa, the holiest week of the year in this mainly Catholic country, the town would not be as lively as usual. Schools have been closed since Tuesday and most government offices and banks closed for the week on Wednesday for what amounts to a vacation week. It means the normally traffic snarled streets are tamer than usual and a portion of the city's population has left town for the holiday.
Suddenly, what seemed like a stupid bit of scheduling by FIFA could be a coup for the U.S. national team, which arrives here Friday night for its World Cup qualifying clash with Mexico on Easter Sunday . Rather than having to cope with a city brimming with hate for the 'Gringos' who spoiled their part three years ago at the World Cup, the Americans will arrive to a city deep in solemn prayer. Does that mean there won't be a mob of Mexican fans outside of the team hotel banging drums and blowing horns? It's a World Cup qualifier so you can't rule anything out.
USA Soccer prepares
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Thursday, 9 a.m. - The relative calm of the city may be why the Mexican media went on the offensive Thursday morning, splashing 'Revenge' on more than a few front pages. A scan of the local newspapers uncovered more than a dozen stories describing how Mexican players who played in the 2-0 loss in Korea in 2002 were looking forward to gaining revenge. Not surprisingly, the consensus among the Mexican players is that A) it hurt to lose to the Americans and B) they won't let it happen again. Would a player actually come out and say, "I have to admit it, they own us." Somehow I doubt it. Also in the day's sports sections is the news of Chivas USA beating Club America in a friendly in Juarez. The result seems shocking, not because America played several first team players, but because Chivas USA had lost to everyone but the Women's U-20 team in the past month, yet somehow came down to Mexico and beat one of the best teams in North America. Friendly or not, you wonder if Jorge Vergara is finding creative ways to help offset the bad publicity the expansion team has been getting.
A note to those of you coming down and are worried about winding up in a bad predicament. The religious holiday has a calm over the city that should hopefully take down the crime meter a few notches. As for worrying about which cab to get into, keep an eye on license plates. If the car's plate doesn't have an S or L at the beginning, look elsewhere no matter how many times the word Taxi is stenciled on the body. The S and L taxis are officially licensed and therefore safe (or at least much safer). I'll admit that I came down somewhat apprehensive (thanks to Denzel's fine acting) but after two days here I can say it doesn't feel any more dangerous than any other big city. (To be fair, I speak Spanish and am not a small man so you might feel differently about this place.)
Thursday, noon - I make my way to the city's largest cathedral, where thousands of worshipers are pouring in and out. Visitors from all over the world are here and the variety of soccer jerseys on display is impressive (Serie A is apparently big here). After surveying a few parishioners, most agree that as important as Easter Sunday is, they will be hoping to be among the 105,000 expected at Azteca Stadium rather than among the thousand at the cathedral for a mass scheduled at the same time. Someone not as excited about Sunday's match is the Cathedral's dean, Ruben Avila, who scoffed at the question of whether the church would make any schedule adjustments to accommodate soccer fans (and actually asked "what game" when first asked about the World Cup qualifier). As serious as Avila was, he remained polite, which I suppose shouldn't come as a shock since he is a priest. Granted, it wasn't the best question ever asked but I couldn't help but wonder what Bruce Arena would have said to the same question. Arena, who combines intelligence, sarcasm and condescension like nobody else, might have said something like, "Well, we have this thing you might have heard of. It's called Easter. Maybe you think we should have Easter mass at halftime of the game?"
After the church, I make my way to scope out potential venues where Mexican fans will gather to watch the game. When the U.S. beat Mexico in the World Cup, thousands of Mexican fans watched the horror in the streets on large screen televisions. According to a Mexican federation official, there are no plans to have big screens in the street again, perhaps to avoid rioting if the U.S. team pulls off its first win at Azteca on Sunday. This time around, most fans will gather at bars and restaurants to cheer their squad on. The feeling among fans is that Mexico should have little trouble. Apparently they haven't been keeping track of Mexico's recent record against the Americans. I wasn't about to point it out to them.
Random observations from the day. Estadio Azteca is huge and it looks even more huge considering there are no big buildings in the vicinity. Think Godzilla walking through the Japanese countryside, that big. Also, the altitude hasn't had much of an effect on me, not that I've walked more than 30 feet yet. Then again, maybe my Inca bloodlines make me predisposed to handling altitude. The air quality isn't that great here but its not like you should bring along a gas mask.
Thursday, 7 p.m. - The day is done and it's time to head back to the hotel. After a stop at Wal-Mart (Yes, they really are everywhere), it's back to the hotel. We drive past every imaginable American eatery. McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken and even Hooters.
The television offerings are decent enough. A flip through the channels offers more coverage of the upcoming qualifier. Apparently, the Mexicans have gotten the word that Eddie Johnson is a star. An extensive piece on him includes interviews in Spanish with Pablo Mastroeni and Landon Donovan, who amazingly doesn't sprinkle in any German. One of the best subplots leading into Sunday's match is how Johnson will handle the pressure of his first real big test. Arena wouldn't admit whether Johnson is starting Sunday but he has a better chance of hiring Steve Sampson as an assistant coach than he does of not starting Johnson.
Speaking of Sampson, what is going on in Galaxy land? We get it Steve, it's your team, but do you have to trade everybody who was on last year's roster? Rumor has it that Sampson is even lobbying for a name change. France 98 and the Los Angeles Nil-Nil Draws probably aren't in contention for the new name but maybe they should be.
The first day is down and tomorrow marks the arrival of the U.S. team, the more than 50 American media members coming down for the match and the modest contingent of American fans. They'll find a city much tamer than they expected, but one whose energy should continue to grow as we get closer to Sunday.
Ives Galarcep covers soccer for ESPN.com and is also a writer and columnist for the Herald News (NJ). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com