By Mike Woitalla
My first Mexico City visit for a clash between the giant neighbors' soccer teams came in 1992. We were warned of the altitude, heat and pollution, which made breathing the air in the city built on a lake encircled by mountains equal to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.
The USA had Claudio Reyna, Brad Friedel, Cobi Jones, Alexi Lalas, Chris Henderson ... A U-23 team vying to qualify for the 1992 Olympic Games coached by a waiter. Coach Lothar Osiander’s full-time job was as serving food at Graziano's in downtown San Francisco.
The game was played at the Azulgrana Stadium, in front of 45,000 fans, in the evening. A pregame downpour cooled the air and seemed to cleanse the air. Goals by Henderson and Mike Lapper gave the USA a 2-1 win. Late in the game, the Mexican fans started chanting Oles when Americans connected passes.
After the game, fans aimed trash and coins at the Mexican players, leaving them stranded in the middle of the field as the Americans players walked unmolested through the tunnel. “We’re ashamed. We are responsible for this,” said Mexican defender Manuel Vidrio as he looked sadly toward the fans, who also threw profane-laden insults.
Those fans excepted, Mexico City struck me as an overwhelming friendly place -- not what I was expecting from one of the world’s biggest and most crowded cities. The impression was confirmed by my subsequent visits, which included Mexico-USA World Cup qualifiers at Azteca Stadium on Easter and Day of the Dead weekend, the latter in 1997 when Coach Steve Sampson’s team made history with a 0-0 tie, the only time Mexico didn't beat the USA in a qualifier at home.
Mexico’s capital is a hypermetropolis of 20 million people living within 600 square miles -- roughly the size of Houston but with 10 times as many residents. It has 85,000 streets -- 850 of them are named “Juarez.” My guide book warns of street crime but says traffic’s the real danger: “Never assume that a green light means it's safe to cross the street.”
The good news is the air is much better. In the early 1990s, they closed many of the belching factories, and introduced unleaded gasoline and catalytic converters. Tuesday’s game is during Semana Santa, the pre-Easter vacation week that sends enough Capitalinos on holiday to keep traffic exhaust at a minimum.
There’s still the altitude, 7,500 feet above sea level, but that didn’t seem to bother the USA when Jurgen Klinsmann’s team beat El Tri, 1-0, at Azteca in a friendly last August. Plus, most of the Mexican starters’ clubs don’t play at altitude, further diminishing the home-field advantage. And the USA played at a mile high on Friday, which could aid in acclimation. The 80-degree heat may feel more salving than threatening for the Americans in wake of their snow game in Colorado.
Having beaten Costa Rica before their Azteca challenge took a load of pressure off the Americans, but the Mexicans started the Hexagonal -- the final round of World Cup qualifying -- with two ties, a scoreless opener with Jamaica at Azteca and Friday’s 2-2 at Honduras.
In the past, Mexico played its games at high noon, figuring the heat would hurt the guests. Tuesday’s game doesn’t kickoff till late in the evening. How Mexico’s players respond to the pressure after their winless start to the Hexagonal should have more effect on the outcome than the heat, altitude or smog.