The Times: Essential news from the L.A. Times

Mexico's unique, binational soccer fans

Episode Summary

Of all the fans from all the nations competing in the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Mexico's unique fanbase sets it apart. Today, we examine what makes that so.

Episode Notes

Right now, the eyes of much of the world is on the FIFA World Cup in Qatar as 32 teams fight for national pride. One team is Mexico, whose unique fanbase sets it apart from the world. With loyalties to both Mexico and the United States, it’s a representation of resilience, controversy and so much more.

Today, we examine the phenomenon. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: Univisión News anchor León Krauze

More reading:

Watch “Al Grito de Guerra”

Gracias Fútbol: Reliving our favorite World Cup memories

This soccer-mad L.A. Latina has attended seven World Cups. Qatar will make it eight

Episode Transcription

This is an unedited transcript. We apologize for the mistakes. A corrected transcript is coming soon.

Ambi: Let's go. Oh.

Gustavo Arellano: That's the sound of most of the world right now.

Gustavo Arellano: The FIFA World Cup, soccer's Premier Tournament is happening in Qatar through mid-December. 32 national teams are battling each other to be the best squad of them all. One of them is Mexico. Oh, Mexico,

Ambi: Come No,

Steve Garcia: I'm, I'm first generation American, born and raised here in San Diego. But my heart and passion always roots for all things Mexico related

Gustavo Arellano: That's Steve Garcia and like him, Mexico is a birthplace of my parents too. It's the home to a three, the nickname for Mexico soccer team named after the country's tricolored flag. It's the team and the country that I love to hate and hate to love, and I'm not alone. I'm just one of hundreds of thousands of American fans of the Mexican national soccer team.

Steve Garcia: When the US team plays, I'll put on my jersey and represent the country that I'm from. But if they're playing Mexico, You're gonna have to take a backseat to the El Tri.

Gustavo Arellano: Tri is always good, but just never good enough to have ever won the FIFA World Cup, and yet the teams by National Fan base is all in.

Leticia Gomez Franco: I'm American born Mexican. My parents are Mexican descent uh, I'll root for Mexico and then I'll continue rooting for Mexico, even when they're out, but then usually go for the underdog. , but no, I've never struggled between, rooting between Mexico and the US .

Gustavo Arellano: Yeah, there's a lot of pride that El Tri fans have for our team, and really we really care that much about the ultimate results.

Gabriel Martinez: Mexico has some very dedicated fans, because soccer is a big, a big entity , a lot of Mexican fans are, we're big fans of the slogan win or lose. We still booze. [laughter] 

Gustavo Arellano: No comment to that. But soccer is more than just a game to us. It's estimated that more than 60,000 fans of el tri are in Qatar to watch their team play in this year's World Cup. Sadly, I'm not gonna be there. 

But I am gonna be one of the thousands, if not millions of people in both sides of the US Mexico border that's gonna gather in bars, homes, and even big public venues to cheer Mexico on. El Tri is one of the only teams in the world with such a unique fan base, essentially split among two countries.

Enrique Montalvo: I feel more, , I don't know if I would say prouder to be Mexican, but it's just like I have that pride and like I want like my team that come from that country to win.

:Soccer Ambi in (run under)

Ambi: Oh come on... Yes! ...

Gustavo Arellano: How the team fostered. This borderless fan base is both a history lesson and a metaphor for immigrant life and joy in the United States.

Gustavo: Gustava. You're listening to the Times Essential News from the LA Times. It's Friday, November 25th, 2022. I hope you enjoyed your Turkey. Tomorrow, Mexico plays Argentina and it's second game, the FIFA World Cup. Today we talk about why so many folks follow L three, even though all they do is break their hearts, is break their hearts, and that that'll work for now.

Gustavo: Leon Krauze is co-anchor of Noticiero Univisión Edición Nocturna, the Spanish Language network's late night newscast. He's also the producer and narrator for Al Grito de Guerra, a new six part documentary that documents the history of the Mexican men's soccer team over the past 40 years. Leon, welcome to The Times.

León Krauze: Thank you, Gustav. It's great to be with you.

Gustavo: Okay. You've written books before on El Tri. You've done documentaries on them before, and now this one as a reporter, what interests you about their history and what the team means that you keep going back to them again and again,

León Krauze: Well, it's, it's a fascinating story for many reasons. First of all, The link that the team has with its fandom on both sides of the border, right? This is the only national team whose fandom can be very clearly divided between two countries. First, obviously Mexico, and then the way our fans and ourselves, right, as part of that fandom feel about the team when they come play in the United States. I've been in the stadium many times and it's a fascinating touching ritual, how for 90 minutes, Mexico comes back. For just 90 minutes. It's really a touching connection link to Mexico, uh, itself. And then there's a sporting side, Gustavo. This is a tale of two sides of the same coin. First, the proximity of excellence, because for the last seven World Cups, Mexico has made it out of the group stage. Only Mexico and Brazil have accomplished such a feat. Not Argentina, not Germany, not France, not Italy, only Mexico and Brazil. Then we've lost seven times in a row in eight, a round of 16 matches. And each of those is like a novella, really 

Gustavo: You and I, and many of our listeners know this history, but not everyone does. So explain what El Tri is, place them in the world of soccer right now. Are they the best, The worst? A bunch of whatevers

León Krauze: If you judged by the pessimism, recurring pessimism in Mexico, you would think that we have one of the worst teams in the world, but it's just not the case. I mean, we've solidly placed among the top 16 teams in the world for over 40 years around, let's say the 13th spot, more or less. 

Gustavo: Yeah. 

So listen, that's pretty solid. If you translate that into the world economies, for example, that's pretty solid. And so we are not there at the top, top level, but we are right below it. I don't think that there's any. In the world during the World Cup that would be comfortable facing Mexico. And if anyone has any doubts, they should just ask Germany  in the last World Cup, for example.


Gustavo: Yes I remember that big win for Mexico. But then we were no match for Brazil in the Round of 16. And that’s where we’ve been for the past few world cups, a wild card. A good team but not quite good enough to make it to the end. So has Mexico always had this sort of standing in history in the FIFA World Cup?

León Krauze: for the longest time it was beyond mediocre, We never really managed to win a game outside of Mexico. The country celebrated like mad when at last, in 1962 they won a match and in 1966 when in Europe for the its matched point during the World Cup. But then it all changed in 1986 when we had a World Cup in Mexico and definitely changed. Around 1992 when Caesar Louis Menotti, a legendary Argentinian coach, came to Mexico and basically changed the mentality of the Mexican players.

 Mexico began competing at the highest level and from the 1994 World Cup on, we've made it out of the group stage solidly in every group imaginable, against the hosts, against the former champions, but then there's that other side, the recurring wound that is El Quarto Partido, the fourth match round of 16. 

GUSTAVO: Why Mexico gets so close but not close enough… after the break.

GUSTAVO: Leon, you talked to a lot of the Mexican national team but how does the wider soccer community see El Tri? Do they see Mexico as a threat or just a so so team?

León Krauze:we interviewed.Really a lot of people, Mexican players from the 1960s to our contemporary heroes and every generation in between, We interviewed our rivals. We interviewed the Americans, we interviewed the Germans, we interviewed the Argentinians, and when we spoke to the Argentinians, for example, three of them, Mexico has faced Argentina in two World Cup in that door die stage of the round of 16, 2006 and 2010. They beat us both times in 2006 with the best goal of the tournament and the Argentinians. Say that there's just a little mental step there in Mexico's mental preparation, let's call it the killer instinct. That little step that allows team to close a match the way you should do, not only soccer, but in life, And something that certainly stood out for me from those conversations. The fact that Mexico maybe lacks that little step that might be crucial when it's do or die. 

Gustavo:  Do you see it as a metaphor for the country?

León Krauze: I do. I do. I do. I think that even the pessimism, right? In Mexico, people tend to believe that the country is perennially in the dumps and we have nothing to offer, blah, blah, blah. That's just part of the spiel, and it's wrong. Objectively, Mexico is a key player in the world economy, and we've been very close to excellence as a nation and taking that last step, but there's always something missing. Is it also that sort of universal mental step that we are missing? I don't know, but certainly I think that the Mexican national team could be seen as a metaphor for the country, but that not only happens in Mexico, could say the same about many other teams across the world. But in Mexico, I think it is the case for sure. 

Gustavo: How have you seen the Mexico US rivalry ebb and flow with American politics? Did you see fans of El Tri being more passionate during the Trump administration? Are you seeing it less passionate with the Biden administration?

León Krauze: I remember that. During the Trump years, there was a match between Mexico and the United States in the United States, and both teams came together and, and stood in, in this typical line of, in soccer, no? and hugged each other as a way of saying, we, we stand together against the most dangerous expressions of Nativism. I'm sure they wouldn't explain it like I just did, but that's how it felt, right? That was the message.

 And I still believe that even though this is a real rivalry and the Mexico dreams actively of defeating the United States, every chance that they get in a soccer match. I'm an optimist. I'm an optimist, and I think that there's many more things that. Us both countries, and I think that the Mexican-American community is a pretty wonderful expression of that than things that divide us. And I hope that when it comes to soccer, we get to see that increasingly, and we get to see that in the 2026 World Cup. That does not mean that if we meet again, we will not be rooting for Mexico. And obsessively against the United States. But I can tell you that, my own kids, I have two kids that were born in Indian states and uh, and one was, that was born in Mexico and they root for Mexico, but immediately after they root for the United States.

Gustavo: Yeah, people always talk about how soccer is more than just a game, more than just sports. It's political, you could say the same for every country, but what you have long made the argument for and so many people who follow it El Tri, is that the one thing that really makes Mexico unique Is that fan base, and every men's national soccer team in the world has very devoted fans. But how are Mexico's fans different than those of other countries?

León Krauze:  I've thought about this a lot, being a binational Mexican myself, and I do think that the main difference is that our fan base is is divided between the United States and Mexico, and each fan base has its own very clear way of rooting for the team of being devoted to the team. I can't think of another similar scenario in world soccer. Maybe Turkey with, uh, Turkey with Germany. Yeah, maybe. But other than that, I really can't think of any other example. And then of course we put our money where our mouth is because Mexican fans show up all over the place. 

León Krauze: And I know fans who save for four years. Yeah. And the moment the workup ends to the moment, the tickets come out so that they can go. and people save money every day with great effort to go and root for the team, and it's very touching.

Gustavo: What makes me laugh about the fans is when they go to the games Here in the United States, we care so much about representation. How do Mexicans come out on media? Y van al juego and they have their big, huge sombreros with fake mustaches, or they have Aztec headdresses, like they dress up into stereotypes of what, how the world views Mexico. But they're proud of that. 

León Krauze:  Yeah, yeah. We interviewed a very famous soccer fan his nickname is Carmelo, and he has his, he's Mariachi hat with. With the logos of the World Cup and he goes there carrying a fake World Cup trophy and, and woo, the list is very long.

León Krauze:  Yeah. And we sing our songs…  

León Krauze:  and, uh, I would encourage everyone who's listening if they have a chance now that the World Cup is coming over here to North America, even if they don't like soccer, they should go to a World Cup game. And if, and if in that World Cup game, your country is playing all the. Try to do it because it's an unparalleled human experience to be in a World Cup game where your team is playing.

León Krauze: It gives you hope 

León Krauze:  not to get too lyrical, but it gives you hope that community is possible for humanity's sake. So make an effort in 2026. 

Gustavo: Coming up after the break. Poor Mexico so far from a world. So close to the United States, 

Gustavo:  Leon. Unsurprisingly, the biggest rivalry El Tri has in soccer is with the United States. 

León Krauze: Unsurprisingly. But it all began with with a match, with one legendary match. the 2002 World Cup match and there's one particular interview that I find fascinating. This colleague of ours, a  journalist Ivan Casancero, who's very close to the American team and knows many of the players from today and from that era, told me that the Americans saw that match as the opportunity to define a rivalry, whoever won that match would basically dominate at least mentally, if not historically in the numbers the rivalry and Mexico didn't see it that way. 

And the result is that Mexico lost. By the way, that's the clearest defeat that Mexico has had, in my opinion, over the seven matches that we, that we've spoken about, unimpeachable defeat. And so the fact is, It's very unlikely that we are going to see that match in the World Cup again. And so that defeat has defined the relationship from the Mexican side.

You can hear that from Ra Mars and from the players who were there. And it has also defined the rivalry for the Americans with the do. It's a fabulous rivalry. 

Gustavo:  No, I remember seeing that one. I was with my, you know, I was, would've been 23 years old with my cousins y todo eso, and I remember after the loss we're like, this isn't supposed to happen. Like if there's one thing that we Mexicans have over Americans, it’s soccer. Yep. And yeah, we've lost to the United States in the past pero, that’s just whatever gold cup friendly; that doesn't matter. But in the World Cup, we're supposed to win. And now to see us lose the United States in the round of 16, that was a psychic wound.That one really hurt. 

León Krauze: Oh yeah. But the least is long of those, those matches that hurt for me as well. I think that's probably the most painful because when you lose to your biggest rival in the world's biggest stage in a match, is very unlikely to to be played out again because in sports you always have next year, right? I mean the Dodgers can lose to the Padres, but there's always next year and we can face each other again in that same situation, odds are pretty solid that we might, but to face one specific rival, especially from the same region in the World Cup, very unlikely the way the World Cup draw is set up. So that was painful. But there are others, Gustavo. There are others like the, the penalty kicked against the Netherlands.  

Penalty kick ambi up 

León Krauze: There are others. 

Gustavo:  What do you remember? You're talking a lot just as an objective reporter right now, Buto, what do you remember about the first time that you saw Mexico play the United States? In the United States? There was so many fans of Mexico and so passionate for Mexico. 

León Krauze:  You mean against the US right?

Gustavo:  Yeah, against the us, but the United States against Mexico in the United States. 

León Krauze:  Well, the first match I remember were played in California and in the southern part of the United States. And the American players would tell you that they didn't feel at home. They feel like they were the away team, and it really felt like that. But then the Americans made a decision that Also changed the rivalry. They moved the game to the least Mexican place in the United States. I don't know if it's the least Mexican, but it certainly feels like that 

Gustavo Columbus, Ohio. 

León Krauze:  Exactly. It certainly feels like that when you go there in hold more for a soccer match in the cold Columbus, Ohio. And so when that happened, the rivalry also changed because to beat the United States in their home turf, which is for this sort of match, the cold of Columbus, Ohio. Is very, very difficult, almost as difficult as beating Mexico in Azteca Stadium, which remains, the American's, biggest dream to do it in official competition, not in a friendly, in official competition. Uh, you know, so to be there in, in the stadium in in Ohio, I've been there once. Man, it's scary. It's scary. You feel the passion for soccer among the American fans and I love it. I love to see it. 

Gustavo: And I think especially people who don't follow soccer, can't appreciate just what the Americans moving their matches to Columbus means. Because as a teenager, I don't know if you're here yet, Leon, but in the 1990s, I would remember when the US would play Mexico, like in the Rose Bowl in the Coliseum. We're talking about places 80,000 capacity and 79,000 of those fans were rooting for Mexico and maybe 1000 were rooting for the United States. And it was Crazy. The Mexican fans were booing the American National Anthem and the fans of the US teams, and it went beyond the sporting realm and it got into politics. Conservatives started pointing at those games, as you said, as the American soccer players themselves said, we feel like we're not at home. The conservatives talk radio politicians are saying, you see, this is proof of rea. This is proof that. Mexicans will never assimilate into the United States that they are a menace to this country and they'll still complain about this to this day. So why do you think Americans get so upset that Mexicans here, whatever generation, almost overwhelmingly do root for El Tri? 

León Krauze: Well, you know, I think it's ignorance, frankly. We've spoken about this during this conversation. The link to the home country, the link to Mexico is still very much alive because of the proximity of the country. So, to ask someone a first generation immigrant to, or even a second generation immigrant,. Even if this country has given them. Everything. There's a, there's an emotional link to what was left behind and to the family that’s that was left behind that, that, that soccer provides very clearly. I remember I, I met this immigrant from Michoacan, in Alabama, and I asked him, so tell me, who do you root for when it's Mexico against the United States? And he says, of course, I root for Mexico. And then I asked him, what about your kids? And he said to me, well, my kids root for Mexico. Mexico most of the time, Mexico. What about your grandkids? And he swallowed hard and stood up and came back like 10 minutes later. And he told me, You touched my heart because he realized that his grandkids did not root for Mexico, and that's natural. That whole family is a natural expression of how soccer should be seen in a binational household, in a Mexican American household. Again, I think it's natural and even the progression towards the American team.  is natural. We shouldn't, I was gonna say, but soccer is all about passion, so who am I to say.

Gustavo: What does that do though? Not just that, but also the US now. Regularly beating Mexico. What does all of that do to the Mexican psyche on either side of the border? 

León Krauze: Well, I would argue that, that it's a pretty even rivalry. 

Gustavo: Yeah, but we were never supposed to lose to the United States. 

León Krauze: I agree. 

Gustavo:  We were always, this was the one thing we had against Y ya ni eso. 

León Krauze: Well, it's not good. I can tell you that over the last few years we lost three crucial matches against the United States final. And then we tied against the United States in a, in Azteca Stadium. And I remember during the game at Azteca Stadium, Gio Rena, this very skillful young American player, there was a moment in which he dribbled around six Mexican players in the midfield and got fancy. And I remember getting very angry and thinking, and actually saying maybe on Twitter that he should be brought down. Again, cleanly, but forcefully. And some people wrote me back and said, they shouldn't do that because X and Y and they should take care of the yellow cards for the World Cup. And I thought, that's wrong. You have to make your home turf felt in soccer. I was very angry that they just let 'em. Run with the ball and do fancy stuff in Azteca Stadium, a sacred place.

León Krauze:  So I think that there's a real rivalry. and we're gonna, we're gonna see things evolve, hopefully always peacefully, always in the sporting arena. And now we have,, A wonderful opportunity to showcase also the many things that bind us, which are many things, which is the 2026 World Cup that we are going to organize together with this other country called Canada, which has also grown as a soccer team by the way. So we'll see Gusta, we'll see maybe in that World Cup we'll get to Clash again in maybe the semi-finals. Why not? Let's Dream and Mexico you can finally get our revenge. 

Gustavo: Finally, Leon, will Mexico ever win the World Cup or does it even matter? 

León Krauze: No, it matters. Of course it matters. It's, it's a dream for millions of people. I think that Mexico's only hope at winning a World Cup is to do what, France and Spain and Germany have done for a long. Or Argentina and Brazil, which is really prepare and compete at the highest level. And Euro. Why? Euro Wise is an incredible story. A country of 3 million people. How many people are there in LA County? 7 million. Not 20 million. Okay, so just, just think of that a country of 3 million people consistently produces the most excellent soccer teams in the world stage. Why? Because they, they keep exporting players, sending players when they're teenagers to compete at the highest level. We have to go back to that. We have to keep on sending players abroad, stop playing only friend in the United States and go to Europe, push ourselves. That's how you excel in life, not only in soccer, but in everything else. If you, you have to leave the small pond. Gustavo always. And by the way, isn't that the biggest lesson that our immigrant community has taught us? I think it is. And the look where they are now. 

Gustavo: Thank you so much for this conversation,

León Krauze: Gracias. 

Gustavo: And that's it for this episode of The Times Essential News from the LA Times K

Kinsey Morlin and David Leather were the he on. Kinsey Moreland and David Dole were the heest on this episode, and Mike Kathlin mixed and mastered it. Our show produced by Shannon Lynn, Denise Garra Kasha, David Toledo Nation Brown. Our editorial assistants are Roberto Reyes and Nico Las Perez. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, mark Netto, Mike Kalin.

Our editor is Kinzie Morelin. Our executive producers are Hashan Hilton. Hi Orban, and our theme music is by Andrew Ween. I'm Gustava. We'll be back Monday with all the news in this mother.