WTF, Mexico?: A Strange Ending to the Copa America in the Bay Area
SANTA CLARA -- Apologies to those of you who read my writing regularly (thanks, mom!) but I'm going to regurgitate the same Kurt Vonnegut quote that I've used twice in the last month or so.
In the immortally classic Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut wrote that: "There's nothing intelligent to say about a massacre."
Vonnegut's correct, only he obviously wasn't writing about a soccer game, but rather about the unnecessary Allied firebombing of Dresden that killed nearly enough people to fill the entirety of Dynamo Dresden's Stadion Dresden.
Usually I'm pressed for space in the newspaper and can only include that first line of the quote in my story, but Vonnegut goes on directly after that sentence about the massacre to write: "Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.
"And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like 'Poo-tee-weet?'"
Replace the "Poo-tee-weet?" with "Chi, Chi, Chi! Le, Le, Le! Viva Chile!" and you produce the scene at Levi's Stadium Saturday night.
After all the fans, hopes, expectations, predictions, and quality game play, Mexico dropped the ball in the worst way possible to exit the Copa America. The 7-0 scoreline is Mexico's worst-ever in official tournament play at the senior men's level. After the match, Chicharito told ESPN FC's Tom Marshall that the loss "hurts [Mexico's] soul."
Chile are a quality squad boasting world class players in the likes of Bayern Munich's Arturo Vidal and Arsenal's Alexis Sánchez.
But they're not seven goals better than Mexico, a team many picked as a dark horse for the tournament title.
When New York City FC loses 7-0, it's mostly just funny. When Mexico loses by the same scoreline, to me, it's just confusing.
I traveled to the match with the above Chileans. Having never attended a Mexico game that didn't also involve the United States, I wasn't really sure what to expect as far how the fans of each country would treat each other.
I quickly realized that this point would essentially not matter, as there were so few Chileans that my Twitter estimate of the crowd being at least 99 percent Mexican was considered low by others at the match.
The Chileans I hung out with were one small collection of maybe five total groups I saw walking around for over four hours prior to the game -- the sold out quarterfinal would serve as a home game for Mexico.
Rather than taunt or deride my friends though, fans of El Tri greeted the supporters of the defending Copa champs with open arms. Mexico fans consistently pleasantly approached the Chileans, shook their hands, and uttered "que gane el mejor" (may the best win). One fan even rewarded the middle Chilean in the photo with a cold Mexican cerveza.
As we made our way to meet up with a few more Chileans for hot dogs and grilled chicken, Mexicans enthusiastically honked their horns, smiled, and/or waved at the small drop of red that passed through an ocean of green.
We passed crowds of Mexicans chanting "Fuck Trump!" and families spinning metracas and blowing into horns. As the match approached, the mob of green oozed over towards the red seats of Levi's stadium, evoking images of Christmas in June.
Of course, the dreaded "p-word" chant was screamed early and often as well. More on that later, but there are still many steps needed to eliminate homophobia from the game, but to say that it's limited to Mexico fans, is to ignore much of the rest of the soccer world.
The noise of the fans lining up to enter the stadium was ear-splitting, like a buzz saw, one of my friends texted me. But not so loud that one could accuse the Mexicans of overconfidence.
To some Americans, El Tri fans come off as pompous, like Casey in "Casey at the Bat." For many years, Mexico was the clear superior team in CONCACAF, having their way with the lowly United States whenever they pleased.
But then 2-0 in Jeonju came, the first dos a cero. That night in 2002, Mexico hadn't been focused on the weak U.S., instead they collectively prepared for their inevitable quarterfinal against Germany. A match that never happened -- El Tri had not swung at the first two pitches, leaving McBride and Donovan to toss a fireball third strike.
Since then, the fixture has become relatively even between the two rivals, though American fans consider the ubiquitous expectation of victory from their southern neighbors arrogant.
I think that assessment is incorrect, however.
I think the attitude derives more from an inferiority complex.
After all, if Mexico weren't as good as the United States at soccer, what would be distinct about their national sporting identity? They had always had soccer, always. Soccer was Mexico's, to own and cherish alone.
It's 2016 and El Tri are still objectively better than the Yanks. With players like the aforementioned Chicharito, Andrés Guardado, Héctor Herrera, Héctor Moreno, and Raúl Jiménez, it would be foolish to not suggest so.
However, they're also one of the world's big underachievers -- the England of CONCACAF. Mexico is by far the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, nearly tripling the population of No. 2 Colombia. Soccer is the runaway most popular sport in Mexico. Its national league, Liga MX, is one of the three strongest in the Western Hemisphere.
And what does the national team have to show from that? Not a lot, it turns out.
There's the 1999 Confederations Cup championship. The 2012 Olympic Gold Medal. Seven CONCACAF Gold Cups. When it really matters though, in the World Cup, there's nothing.
Mexico's 25 World Cup losses rank first all-time.
It's been 30 years since Mexico won a knockout round game in the World Cup, it's only victory coming as the hosts in 1986 with a 2-0 win over tiny Bulgaria.
The finishes in the six World Cups El Tri has qualified since hosting? Round of 16 losses to Bulgaria (USA 1994), Germany (France 1998), USA (Korea/Japan 2002), Argentina (Germany 2006), Argentina (South Africa 2010), and the Netherlands (Brazil 2014).
All the losses have come in heartbreaking fashion. It was penalties against Bulgaria. There was a last-minute winner against Germany. Just losing at all to the United States was painful in its own right. Maxi Rodriguez's overtime golazo lit up the Internet but dimmed the light of Mexico. A giveaway at the back and an offside goal in the second Argentina game let many frustrated with the officiating. A late dive from Arjen Robben against the Netherlands revisited this point.
The Copa America Centenario was supposed to finally ease all that pain. All that suffering. All the tears. The national identity crisis.
Mexico were the pre-tournament darlings, riding Chicharito's 26-goal season for Bayer Leverkusen along with a team-record 19-match unbeaten streak.
The most popular team in the United States were also the de facto home side of the tournament, assuredly they would draw more fans than anyone, including the actual hosts. Finally, Mexico would get a chance to prove itself against top competition in the country they possibly feel most at home playing in.
Hopes improved with a 3-1 victory over Uruguay in their opening game in Glendale, Ariz. It was a game that featured an own goal, multiple red cards, referee confrontations, and a late winner -- the type of game Mexico doesn't usually win in big tournaments.
Then came two less-than-ideal performances in an underwhelming 2-0 victory over Jamaica and a come-from-behind 1-1 draw with Venezuela. For a team that was used to performing well but not getting the results, the inverse showed fans something new.
Confidence was high heading into the Chile match-up, but again not too high. While Chile were the defending champions, they also hadn't set the tournament on fire, narrowly defeating an awful Bolivia side, and conceding twice to Panama in a second victory.
The match was set for Santa Clara, where a sellout of over 70,000 was quickly announced in a part of the United States that used to belong to Mexico.
In the Ian Fleming James Bond novel Goldfinger, the action is split up into three different parts, each with their own title.
The first part, which partially takes place in Mexico, is called "Happenstance."
And that's exactly how Mexico conceded their first goal, with Liga MX-bound winger Edson Puch just happening to be positioned right in front of a save from Memo Ochoa that the former easily dispatched into the net.
"Coincidence" is the title for the second part, with Eduardo Vargas proving the similiarities by just getting onto the end of a cross from a triple-teamed Alexis Sánchez in a remarkable occurrence.
The title for part three? "Enemy Action."
A turnover in the Mexican defensive third followed by a cool finish from Sánchez just four minutes after halftime ensured that there would be Enemy Action at Levi's.
Not between the teams on the field though and not against the dominant Chileans.
The new enemy of the 70,547 in Santa Clara was the Mexican national team.
The fans that hadn't already left booed the eleven Mexicans on the pitch. Sarcastic "Olé!" chants roared for every completed Chilean pass. The derided "p-word" chant was used on Ochoa, rather than on La Roja goalkeeper Claudio Bravo.
There are no parts four through seven in Goldfinger, but Chile added them on the field anyway, slicing through the Mexican defense "like a blowtorch through butter," as Sean Connery said in the film adaptation of the novel.
Mexico again found a way to disappoint its fans in the worst way possible. After El Tri supporters thought they'd seen it all, there was one more slap in the face: The Massacre at Levi's.
Unfortunately for Mexico fans, the "el mejor" in "que gane el mejor" has never been El Tri.
And that's the true tragedy for a fan base that deserves more.