GUADALAJARA — Jorge Vergara, the flamboyant and opinionated owner of Mexico's most popular soccer team, is rarely at a loss for words. But when asked to describe the longest and most emotional rivalry in the nation's sporting history, Vergara begins to stutter like an awkward teenager at his prom.
"It's a big issue," he finally said. "[But] in the U.S., it's hard to understand."
That's because, in the U.S., there's nothing like a Chivas-America soccer game.
Boston Red Sox-New York Yankees? Please. That's just a little neighborhood squabble.
Michigan-Ohio State? Not even close.
"Maybe you can compare it to when Russia and the U.S. played," says Vergara, who owns Chivas. "For the next six months you are going to be suffering if you lose. And if you win, of course, it's a great enjoyment to beat America."
In that case, Vergara figures to love the next six months since Chivas beat America, 1-0, Sunday on Sergio Amaury Ponce's header midway through the second half before a standing-room-only crowd of more than 60,000 in the latest edition of a game so anticipated that it's known in Mexico simply as "el Clasico" ("the Classic").
But the game isn't a classic just because it matches the most successful, storied and popular teams in Mexican soccer, franchises with 21 national titles and tens of millions of fans between them.
It's become a classic because of what separates the two, both on the field and, more importantly, in the stands.
Club America, from urbane Mexico City, is the team of the nation's elite. Owned by billionaire television mogul Emilio Azcarraga Jean, who inherited his fortune from his father, it is arguably the richest soccer team outside Europe, a wealth it flaunts by regularly signing big-name foreign talent.
That stands in stark contrast to Chivas, based in provincial Guadalajara. The only team in Mexico with more titles (11) and fans than America, Chivas was broke when Vergara, a Guadalajara native who got his start selling tacos out of a street cart, bought it six years ago for $100 million.
What the Clasico has become isn't so much a clash of soccer teams but a social, cultural and political battle as pitched and passionate as the ones that play out at the ballot box.
"If you're an Americanista, you are also anti-Chivas. The two are the same," said Sergio Bonilla, a 22-year-old student from Mexico City. "We know the Chivistas don't like us because we're better than them, we're better than everyone.
"Look, I'll define it this way: God is an Americanista."
Added Cesar Estrada, a 44-year-old accountant and America fan from Mexico City: "El Clasico between America and Chivas is what gives life to Mexican soccer. They're the most important teams in this country and the rivalry has existed forever. It's part of Mexican soccer."
An enduring part, apparently, because though the teams meet as least twice a year under Mexico's two-season format and have played one another 204 times (America leads the series, 73-65, with 66 ties), el Clasico has lost none of its luster.
Sunday's game, the last scheduled to be played at aging Estadio Jalisco, sold out days ahead of time despite the difficult economy and the fact it was on television.
In addition, newspapers churned out thick special sections, radio and TV stations broadcast special programs and for 2 1/2 hours on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, much of Guadalajara, a city of 3.9 million people, was a ghost town as people stayed inside to watch the game.
But Ponce's goal drew thousands, some of whom were even fully dressed, into the street for celebrations that clogged traffic well into the night.
And all this despite the fact neither team entered the game with a winning record.
"El Clasico is different," said Mariano Varela, Chivas' sports director, who took part in more than a dozen classics as a player. "It's pride. It's passion. It's a chance to beat your arch rival."
"It is a feeling of pride," said Chivas fan Luis Alberto Guzman. "It's the countryside versus the capital."
And none of that is lost on the players.
"There's no words to [describe] seeing the whole stadium full, screaming Chivas," said Guadalajara midfielder Jesus Padilla, who didn't play Sunday. "It's something wonderful. You can feel butterflies."