By Mike Woitalla
Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre, known generally as a friendly guy, has been quite grumpy since Mexico blew a 2-0 lead and had to settle for a 2-2 tie at Honduras last Friday. He held a curt postgame press conference but kept his players away from reporters, and blacked out the media until a Monday press conference.
He didn’t say a whole lot then either -- his answers usually a lot shorter than the questions:
“I’m not hear to please everybody, my goal is to qualify. ... There’s always pressure. You play who you play.”
He did ask something of the 100,000 fans who will come to Azteca Stadium for Tuesday’s game against the USA:
“Azteca Stadium can be intense for people, and I ask them that they respect the national anthem of the visitors. It feels horrible not being able to hear your national anthem.”
Before the start of the game in San Pedro Sula, Honduran fans drowned out with Mexico anthem, which, by the way, starts with “Mexicans, at the cry of war, make ready the steel and the bridle, and may the Earth tremble at its centers ...”
We’ll see whether Mexico’s fans heed Chepo’s request when the U.S. star-spangled battle song is played. It might seem unlikely to Corey Vezina of Westchester, N.Y., who is one a few hundred U.S. fans who traveled south for Tuesday’s game. He attended the last two Mexico-USA qualifiers at Azteca, in 2005 and 2009, and the U.S. supporters section received a fair amount of abuse.
“It’s the most intense fan experience any American fan can have, end of story,” Vezina says. “The Mexicans are great, friendly and cool, but when the game starts ...”
In 2009, Vezina and a large group fans took the subway to the game, an afternoon clash that Mexico won, 2-1. Mexican riot police escorted the U.S. fans into the stadium and surrounded them during the game, trying pretty much in vain to prevent Mexican fans from tossing debris at them. After the game, the riot police marched the U.S. fans out of the game and asked them where their bus was.
“‘You took the subway? You’ve got to be kidding,’ the security guys said. ‘It’s not safe to take the subway from here,’” Vezina recalls. “So they put us into two riot police buses to take us to a subway line far away, near the university. We’re hanging out the windows, the doors are open, we’re singing in English and Spanish.
“There are students and professors looking at us, people probably coming home from work, thinking, ‘What is that?’ They probably couldn’t figure out if we were arrested, if we were on the way to jail, or what.”
The subway (El Metro) transports some 4 million capitalinos, who pay 3 pesos (25 cents) a ride, on its 125 miles of track each day. Using it to get to Azteca requires a short light-rail ride after getting off at Xochimilco station.
There are also 17,000 parking spots at Azteca Stadium, and on Monday parts of the lot were used as a playground by children of the Tlalpan borough, playing soccer, skateboarding, riding bikes -- and one kid was flying a kite.
The U.S. team entered the stadium at 5:30 pm on Monday for its last practice before Tuesday’s big game. After more than 60 World Cup qualifying games played this week, the biggest crowd will have been the one watching El Tri against the USA.
“It can be intimidating, but for most of us it’s more exciting,” said U.S. midfielder Maurice Edu."We want to play in front huge crowds.”
Edu played in last August’s 1-0 friendly win at Azteca when about 50,000 fans showed up -- half of the size of Tuesday’s expected crowd.
“Although it was a friendly, we got a win,” Edu said. “That gives you confidence. We’re here to get a result. We’re not coming down here just to defend. We’re coming out to score goals.”
Defender Geoff Cameron also played in that game, the first ever U.S. win on Mexican soil, and now aims to help the USA beat Mexico for the first time in a World Cup qualifier.
He too thinks a key to success is to resist building a bunker. That it is, in fact, possible to take the game to the Mexicans.
”Sure, you’ve got to the weather the storm here and there,” Cameron said. “Last time we came down here, 15 to 20 minutes we were attacking them, and I think it was kind of a shock to them. There are going to be spells when we’re attacking, then sit back and regain some energy, get your lungs back. Then attack again. Hopefully, we’ll show we have some attack and put pressure on them.”
Advice Cameron has for his teammates who haven’t experienced Azteca: “You got to be loud. It wasn’t even a sold-out stadium last time and it was hard to hear each other.”