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Feb 4, 2009

Tracing the origins of the long-standing U.S.-Mexico rivalry

It is not easy to characterize the U.S.-Mexico soccer rivalry. The competition between the countries has deep historical roots and many sociocultural implications, but has only recently blossomed into a true rivalry, with emotions barely under control and passions inflamed on both sides.

When the teams first played, the U.S. had the upper hand. But it took until nearly the turn of the century for the U.S. to return to competing on par with the Mexicans.

It all started in 1934, when the World Cup was in its infancy and the key figure was Aldo "Buff" Donelli, a remarkable goal scorer who was playing outside the Massachusetts-New York-Philadelphia power structure of soccer. Donelli was named to the U.S. team only because of the insistence of Billy Gonsalves, a powerful midfielder who was considered the country's best player.

Donelli would go on to coach and play for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL and also became a highly respected college football coach. However, his greatest sporting thrill was performing in the 1934 World Cup, he told me during an interview at Three Rivers Stadium in 1991. Donelli scored all the U.S. goals in a 4-2 victory over Mexico and in a 7-1 loss to Italy in Rome, then turned down offers from Serie A clubs, his ambitions turning away from soccer as the game declined in the U.S.

For nearly 57 years following the 1934 World Cup, soccer in the U.S. struggled, with players either changing sports or performing in obscurity. Nor would the U.S. achieve a significant result against Mexico. The U.S. did take a 2-1 decision over the Mexicans in a 1980 qualifier, but it had already been eliminated and only 2,126 spectators bothered to show up for the match in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Not until July 5, 1991 did the rivalry between the countries truly start taking shape. Then, the U.S. shocked the Mexicans 2-0 in the semifinals of the Gold Cup on the way to taking the title. And "shocked" is probably understating the effect of that result. Two days later, Manuel Lapuente was fired as coach of the Tricolores, the same day the U.S. took a penalty-kick victory over Honduras for the championship.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Mexico
Feb. 11
Columbus Crew Stadium; Columbus, Ohio
7 p.m. ET, ESPN2 HD

"It was no longer a question of how many goals are we going to give up against Mexico," U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said, "but who is going to win the game?"

Nor is Gulati exaggerating how dominant Mexico was in the region before '91. Even when the U.S. did put together a decent team for the 1950 World Cup, one good enough to surprise England, it had little chance against Mexico, losing 6-0 and 6-2 in qualifiers.

"1991 was a turning point because of our success in the Gold Cup, but it didn't happen overnight," Gulati said. "We got better over a long period of time. Before 1991, we hadn't played Mexico because they had been disqualified for the 1990 World Cup and they were the hosts in 1986."

Indeed, the origins of the turning point were tied to the 1984 Olympic Games. The crowds were impressive -- in fact, attendance for soccer matches was greater than the combined crowd totals for every other sport in the '84 Olympics -- and FIFA president Joao Havelange took note and began formulating plans to award the World Cup to the U.S. Once the U.S. was named host for the '94 World Cup, on July 4, 1988, the federation started making a concerted effort to support the national team.

The U.S. was actually generating talent in those days, but there was no place to showcase it because of the absence of a national league. Little wonder Mexico was taken by surprise in 1991. Besides a few enterprising operations such as the Blackhawks (named for an exclusive housing development in the Bay Area) and the Tampa Bay Rowdies, there was no professional soccer on display in the U.S. Instead, they were forced to find a stage overseas.

Besides Hugo Sanchez, no Mexican players were making an impact in Europe, and it seemed Mexican clubs were uninterested in expanding their dealings outside the hemisphere. Meanwhile, dozens of U.S. players were performing in Europe -- John Harkes and Tab Ramos with high-profile clubs, many others in generic roles all over the continent.

When Bora Milutinovic got a look at the U.S. talent, he knew he had something. Milutinovic guided the U.S. to a win over Uruguay (1-0) in his first game in May 1991 and, two months later, to the Gold Cup title.

"I can say that my team then was capable," Milutinovic said in a telephone interview from Mexico City. "The players were very strong, very good technically and tactically, and they had an extraordinary mentality."

But a couple losses to the U.S. did not change Mexico's expectations entirely. Mexico still maintained an air of superiority and was fielding teams good enough to win Gold Cups and challenge in Copa America in the '90s. Failure against the U.S. meant paying a price for two more Mexico coaches -- Miguel Mejia Baron in 1995 (after a 4-0 defeat) and Milutinovic in 1997 (two games after a 0-0 tie at Estadio Azteca). Nothing like a few fired coaches to signify the importance of a matchup.

Now, Mexico vs. U.S. is gaining balance, each a strong favorite to win at home and satisfied with a draw away. Whereas once the Mexicans were arrogant and disdainful of their counterparts, a mutual respect is developing.

"With our generation, it did start to change," said New England Revolution technical director Mike Burns. "All of a sudden, we were competition for them. Now, I like to say we're the dominant force in CONCACAF. We have other rivals in the region, but Mexico is still the team, that's the rival, and it goes both ways.

"It goes beyond the game. They look at us not only as a soccer team but as a nation and they want to dethrone us and beat the U.S. It crosses all lines. They want to beat us so badly. In World Cup qualifiers, the magnitude of the game is enormous, but there is a little extra when we play Mexico."

The intensity of the matchup has brought out the worst in normally classy players such as Rafa Marquez, whose brutal blow to Cobi Jones warranted a red card in the 2002 World Cup.

As the rivalry evolved, players have found common ground.

"When I see some of those guys now, like Jorge Campos, it's completely fine," Burns said. "But when you're playing against them, it's different -- neither team wants to lose."

But, for several years, the contests were sometimes marked by irrational, over-the-top fouling.

"I don't say there is hate, because everyone is a sportsman," Milutinovic said. "[Alexi] Lalas said there is hate, but he is a gentleman, and when he says that he means he hates to lose against Mexico. But after the game there is friendship."

Said Gulati: "There is no hate whatsoever. There is great mutual respect between the countries, the players, the coaches. Their president [Justino Compean] has been a friend for many years and [coach Sven Goran] Eriksson is a gentleman. A lot of our players know their players. Things happen that cause tension in games. But there is no hate."

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.

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