I must admit having a new respect for the Mexican people today even if I still detest their national football team. They are a people who seemed to have so much hope that today they would finally remove the spell Landon Donovan (aka the Mexicutioner) and his mates have on their national team, and yet deep down they knew when they took the 1-0 lead it would not last. All morning long anticipation filled the air, even in this a glorified tourist town. The locals planned to shut down their businesses of bring in large TVs to the shops to watch the match. I watched the game as a promised at La Moreno in Cozumel where the restaurant owner had brought in a big film screen for patrons to watch the match. As the only American fan in the establishment (wearing a #17 DeMarcus Beasley jersey) I stood out like a sore thumb.
Nonetheless, the patrons were all more than kind and respectful of me. They must have known as a lover of the beautiful game back home that I must get lots of abuse from the adherents to the jockacracy that runs the American sports media and that I must be a real lover of the game to actually own a US jersey. (What they do not know is that I am a sucker who buys every new kit once Nike introduces it, and I probably could have given each and every one of them an old out of date US jersey) Moreover, since the US has become so dominant in the rivalry between the two nations, Mexicans fans have a begrudging respect for the American team even if they keep mentioning how dirty they feel Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra are. When the US tied the match at 1-1 the Mexicans all knew it was a matter of time before the roof caved in. Nonetheless, the comical finishing of Brian Ching and DeMarcus Beasley left the door open (and opened the door for me to be laughed at wearing a Beasley jersey) for a potential equalizer. But as the restaurant owner told me on the way out, “Your keepers always find a way to steal from our best attackers,” an obvious reference to the outstanding match Tim Howard had, and a retrospective of Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel before him who have often times won matches for the US against Mexico, that we otherwise had no business winning. But today was different. We should have won, but the suspect finishing that cost us all Gold Cup long reared its ugly head again today and forced Howard to be the hero.
The funny thing is when the match became 2-1 I had the same reaction as the Mexican fans. Having watched every match in the last ten years between these two nations, I fully expected us to get one or two more counterattacking goals, which we almost did if it had not been for some amazingly suspect finishing. I sensed the Mexicans fans were almost relieved the scoreline didn’t end up 4-1 or 5-1 as it could have, and now they can claim Howard robbed them while their manager Hugo Sanchez blames the officials for his no-call in the 88th minute. This match was wildly entertaining and back home I believe a tape of this match should be sent to the skeptics of the beautiful game. A packed Soldier Field, an intensity unmatched in most American professional sports matches and a wide open, free flowing game, particularly from minutes 30 to 65 would sell skeptics on Soccer, if they were ever willing to give it the time of day.
What was most interesting about my conversations with the Mexican fans however, was the new almost cult hero worship some have developed for Alexi Lalas following his worldwide publicity last week. Most Mexican fans it seems regard English football and the Premiership with contempt. Several fans pointed out to me that the Premiership simply plays a style of football that is incompatible with most of the world. One patron at La Moreno even told me that he felt the EPL was inferior to all of the other big Euro leagues because of the lack of quality Brazilian, Mexican or Italian players in the league. This morning in the center of town one Mexican merchant who spoke perfect English told me that Lalas was dead on with his comments and he felt that both the Mexican Clausura and Major League Soccer are comparable to Premiership. The same man went on to explain to me how the English media is responsible for creating the perception that CONCACAF nations don’t understand football, and that he is concerned by the number of Americans he sees in Cozumel wearing Manchester United, Chelsea or even England jerseys. His theory is that the English media has influenced the American public to turn on its own national team and domestic league in favor of an inferior imported product. In other words, this fellow agreed 100% with Lalas. Another person in broken English told me “Lalas hablar facts es Londres,” which I interpreted to mean Lalas speaks the truth about London, or England. Another fan told me Jared Borgetti, one Mexico’s best ever players was “ruined” by the Premiership that forced him to play a “British game, rather than the way the rest of the world plays.” The same fan told me new LA Galaxy signing Carlos Pavon, a Honduran who once played in Serie A and La Liga is better than any England player other than David Beckham. He went on to mention to me what flops Michael Owen, Steve McManaman and Jonathan Woodgate were for his favorite team Real Madrid. He finished by telling me Lalas should replace Sepp Blatter at FIFA, which of course is a absolutely ridiculous suggestion. This fan showed a clear contempt for the English game and everything he feels it represents.
The Premiership is making great strides in popularity both in Asia and the United States. However based on today’s conversations I believe the EPL will NEVER see the light of day in Latin America. An unhealthy does of nativism exists here coupled with some very honest critiques about the style of play (but not the quality) and a new cult hero in Alexi Lalas.