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SOCCER : CONCACAF GOLD CUP FINAL / MEXICO 4, UNITED
STATES 2

Again, it's red, white and boo

Mexico rallies behind overwhelming support at Rose Bowl.

June 26, 2011|BILL PLASCHKE

It was imperfectly odd. It was strangely unsettling. It was uniquely American.

On a balmy early Saturday summer evening, the U.S soccer team played for a prestigious championship in a U.S. stadium ... and was smothered in boos.

Its fans were vastly outnumbered. Its goalkeeper was bathed in a chanted obscenity. Even its national anthem was filled with the blowing of air horns and bouncing of beach balls.

Most of these hostile visitors didn't live in another country. Most, in fact, were not visitors at all, many of them being U.S. residents whose lives are here but whose sporting souls remain elsewhere.

Welcome to another unveiling of that social portrait known as a U.S.-Mexico soccer match, streaked as always in deep colors of red, white, blue, green ... and gray.

"I love this country, it has given me everything that I have, and I'm proud to be part of it," said Victor Sanchez, a 37-year-old Monrovia resident wearing a Mexico jersey. "But yet, I didn't have a choice to come here, I was born in Mexico, and that is where my heart will always be."

On a street outside the Rose Bowl before the Gold Cup final, Sanchez was hanging out near a motor home that was hosting 17 folks -- 15 of whom were Mexico fans. Inside, that ratio held, there seemingly being about 80,000 Mexico fans among the announced crowd of 93,420.

This was Staples Center filled with Boston Celtics fans. This was Chavez Ravine filled with Giants jerseys. This was as weird as it was wild and, for a U.S. team that lost, 4-2, it had to be wearisome.

"Obviously ... the support that Mexico has on the night like tonight makes it a home game for them," said U.S. Coach Bob Bradley, choosing his words carefully. "It's part of something we have to deal with on the night."

It wasn't just something. It was everything. I've never heard more consistent loud cheering for one team here, from the air horns to the " Ole" chants with each Mexico pass, all set to the soundtrack of a low throbbing roar that began in the parking lot about six hours before the game and continued long into the night.

Even when the U.S. scored the first two goals, the Mexico cheers stayed strong, perhaps inspiring El Tri to four consecutive goals against a U.S. team that seemed dazed and confused. Then when it ended, and the Mexican players had danced across the center of the field in giddy wonder while the U.S. players had staggered to the sidelines in disillusionment, the madness continued.

Because nobody left. Rather amazingly, the Mexico fans kept bouncing and cheering under headbands and sombreros, nobody moving an inch, the giant Rose Bowl jammed for a postgame trophy ceremony for perhaps the first time in its history.

And, yes, when the U.S. team was announced one final time, it was once again booed.

"We're not booing the country, we're booing the team," Sanchez said. "There is a big difference."

Mexico soccer fans have long since proven to be perhaps the greatest fans of any sports team that plays in this country, selling out venues from here to Texas to New Jersey, dwarfing something like Red Sox Nation, equaling any two SEC football fan bases combined.

But eventually, the rules for their unrequited love get tricky. Because eventually, Mexico ends up playing the U.S. team on U.S. soil. And then folks start wondering, as they surely did Saturday, is it really right for folks who live here to boo and jeer as if they don't?

"I know, it's strange, and when we got here, we were a little worried," said Roy Martinez, a U.S. fan who wrapped himself in an American flag and led "USA" cheers to passing cars outside the stadium before the game. "But, you know, it works."

It was truly strange but, in the end, it indeed worked, perhaps because there is pride in living in one of the only countries where it could work.

How many places are so diverse that it could fill football stadiums with folks whose roots are somewhere else? How many places offer such a freedom of speech that someone can display an American flag on their porch one day and cheer against the flag the next?

I hated it, but I loved it. I was felt as if I was in a strange place, and yet I felt right at home.

Certainly, for the U.S. team, it undoubtedly stinks. But then, well, to be honest, the team stinks.

All the misguided hopes that surrounded their advancement into the second round of the 2010 World Cup -- We beat Algeria, whoopee! -- have come crashing down in recent lackluster play under Bradley.

If this were any other country, Bradley would have been relieved by now. But because U.S. expectations remain sadly low, he is allowed to continue guiding a team whose mistakes and missteps led to the Mexico comeback.

Long after that comeback was complete, when the stadium was finally cleared and the party had moved to the parking lot, the Rose Bowl field contained scattered patches of blue and gold celebration glitter. It was messy, and mangled, and beautiful.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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