I did not grow up with soccer, as we call it. I grew up with baseball, football, and basketball. And when I say that I grew up with those games, I mean just that because I was raised by one of the biggest sports fanatics whom I have ever known, my own father. My father was out in the car in the hospital parking lot listening to the Iowa High School Basketball tournament while my mother was giving birth to me inside. After my own limited playing days, the upshot of that for me was that the vicarious experience of spectator sports took up a lot of space that should have been devoted to experiencing life in the first person. This a thing that I had to change, and I made the decision to change it.
Never again will I drop to my knees in front of a television set and weep over the outcome of a basketball game. Never again will my mood be affected for days after the end of a football game. And never again will I live on the emotional roller coaster of the grinding, day-to-day efforts of a baseball team, baseball having been my first love in sports. Never again.
My father, by the way, undertook his escape from the mind-numbing work of farming in exactly that way. Every building on the farm had one or two radios. There was a television in the milking area. Every tractor was equipped with a radio on the fender capable of the volume of a bullhorn so that it could be heard over the roar of the tractor itself in the fields. There were no cabs on those tractors. It was not uncommon for six radios to be playing simultaneously in various buildings on the farm so that one could move about and not miss any of the baseball action from Wrigley Field or Sportsmans Park, later Busch Stadium.
Therein lies the appeal of soccer to me now at age 62. I have a basic understanding of the rules and the strategy, but I bring to it a comfortable detachment. I did not grow up with it. I do not know it in any profound sense. I do not bring to it all the baggage that I bring to the other sports that I have mentioned above because I have not been watching it or listening to accounts of it since my first sentient moments on this earth or reading about it after I first learned to read. It can never get its hooks into me.
With that extended disclaimer out of the way, let me say this. What a helluva fútbol game that was last night, México contra Honduras! In order to describe my experience of it with a crowd of Mexicans, I have to say a bit about the game itself.
For the dabbler or newcomer to baseball, a 1-0 game is the apotheosis of boredom. For the devotee, the right 1-0 game is what he lives for. The devotee watches and enjoys lots of 9-7, 13-3, and 8-4 games, but the right 1-0 game has a special flavor all its own. A 1-0 baseball game is a world in which only the nutcases can immerse themselves. They become silent for the most part, only occasionally groaning or sighing in relief after holding their breath as a close play comes to nothing once again. Everyone else becomes distracted and starts chattering about anything and everything else in the world.
The 1-0 fútbol game is very similar in this respect—the right 1-0 fútbol game. México contra Honduras was one of those right 1-0 fútbol games. It was a week night, and every Mexican man and woman in Manolo's with me last night was a nutcase. The one other American present, who sat next to me in the back corner, was a nutcase. So early on the place was quiet for the most part.
Coming into this game, Honduras, a team with a high-powered offense, was leading in the Central America/México/United States competition to qualify for World Cup play next year in South Africa. When I watched them warm up, I said to myself, “Oh, oh.” They are uniformly tall and long-legged, gazelle-like, and capable of unbelievable bursts of speed. But the catch is always this. Estadio Azteca in México City with 105,000 Mexicans in it, a gazillion feet above sea level. There ought to be a sign in the visitors' locker room saying, “Welcome to Estadio Azteca. Let us now see if you can play this game without oxygen. That is what we do here.”
To Honduras's credit they certainly knew what they were up against. It appeared clearly to me that their plan was to save themselves, preserve themselves, for the later minutes of the game when visiting players at stoppages often bend over, put their hands on their knees, and gasp for air. They played defense for the entire first half. It may not have been a conscious strategy. I do not give a damn what the coaches, the commentators, or the players say. I have no idea what they have said. That is what the Honduran team was doing--trying to endure and be ready for the shootout later.
Actually, this plan worked because of one man, a hero of this game to my way of thinking, the Honduran goalkeeper, number 18, Noel Valladares. The Mexican team peppered him with shot after shot. He would not give in an inch. He was heroic while 105,000 people screamed for his blood. He was grace under pressure, in Hemingway's words.
Then in the 75th minute out of the total 90 minutes plus 5 minutes of stoppage time, Giovani dos Santos of México was clearly fouled in the penalty area—no fault of Valladares--and a penalty kick was awarded to México. The one-on-one thing. All of México sent up number 10, Cuauhtémoc Blanco, to go head to head against Noel Valladares.
I am not a big fan of penalty kicks, but this was perfect in its context. A great game had become stalemated. Let the two teams each send out a champion to settle the thing mano a mano if possible.
The man who is Mexican fútbol right now is 36-year-old Cuauhtémoc Blanco. That is a little long in the tooth for a fútbol player. Cuauhtémoc is named after Moctezuma's nephew, the only royal Aztec who was not overawed by the Spanish conquistadores. That Cuauhtémoc resolved to fight the conquistadores to the end--as it turned out his own end. What a perfect name for a Mexican sports star, and a Mexican sports star who plays in a place called Estadio Azteca no less. Cuauhtémoc Blanco is adored in México and in Spanish-speaking Chicago, where he plays for the Chicago Fire in Major League Soccer. His image is all over billboards in Chicago as well as in México. He is hated everywhere else. Here is my theory--my very own--as to why.
When you watch Cuauhtémoc play, he conveys the impression not that he is playing but that he is working. There is none of the grace or flash about him that characterizes his teammate, twenty-year-old Giovani dos Santos, for example. Likewise, there is none of the inconsistency of the younger player either. He is always the same, laboring on as if he were digging a ditch with a spade. Slowly and relentlessly. Slowly and relentlessly, by the way, while opposition players lean on him, elbow him, knock him down, step on him. He was carried off on a stretcher last night, only to pour water on his own head and return to the game. I know these players are notorious for faking injuries, but take my word for it. He had lost consciousness.
The impression that he gives obscures the fact that he has great skills. His passing is pinpoint. And when by dint of his hard work, he finds himself at the right place at the right time, he is deliberate and deadly in front of the goal.
Why is he hated elsewhere? Because your team is not supposed to be beaten by a guy who plays like that. It is relatively easy, for example, to accept a defeat at the hands of Giovani dos Santos, who at times can employ the forces of magic. But to be beaten by Cuauhtémoc Blanco? A Mexican who digs ditches with a spade while sweat runs down into the crack of his ass? There must be something fishy going on. He plays dirty, that Mexican.
So then, is it any wonder that Mexicans, some of the hardest working people that I have ever seen, many of whom literally labor at digging ditches during the day with a spade, slowly and relentlessly while being kicked around by others, embrace this guy as one of them? They embrace him in a way they could never embrace young Giovani dos Santos, whose breathtaking talent is ethereal and other worldly. Giovani dos Santos never bleeds, and he never sweats. Cuauhtémoc lives in their world with them. And when he succeeds, they go absolutely bonkers.
Cuauhtémoc succeeded last night with the game winner. He was doubly deadly in front of the goal without opposition players hanging on him. I believe that Valladares did deflect the ball a bit, but not enough. You can decide that for yourself by watching below. But I know this. The Mexicans went ape shit as only a truly emotional people can. It was a display of every manner of expressing quick, overwhelming emotion that a human is capable of. Sagging in relief. Hugging the nearest person. Yelling. Hands in the air. Weeping. Staring at the replays to make absolutely sure that life really had not cheated them one more time. The whole gamut.
There were minutes to play, but the game was over with one exception--a wonderful save by the Méxican goalkeeper, Francisco Guillermo Magana Ochoa, the intellectual of the crowd, after a last, desperate Honduran rush.
Of course emotional responses of crowds to sports are a dime a dozen. There was a subtle character to it all here though. It seemed to me that for them, this was not like watching some impossibly talented kid pull off a reverse kick back over his own head and celebrating in awe of it. Or a run-of-the-mill tough win in a close game for that matter. This was from the gut. To them this was like watching your brother, sweaty and a bit bloodied, kick some ass in a brawl with bad guys in a grim, determined manner, and ultimately save the family.
And who could begrudge these people this or disparage them for it? I enjoyed it all with them in a detached sort of way. It was great fun revisiting the world of live-with-it-die-with-it spectator sports with these folks for a couple of hours. But that is all it was. A visit.
This is a short highlight video showing three or four of the many shots that the Mexican team poured in on Noel Valladares during the first half and then Cuauhtémoc's penalty shot against Noel, who you will see came very close to making a game saver.