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Documenting the great rivalry: USA-Mexico
by Mike Woitalla, March 10th, 2011 3:03AM

[INTERVIEW] For the last two years, filmmaker Pablo Miralles has been producing a documentary about U.S. and Mexican soccer titled “Gringos at the Gate.” We spoke with Miralles, who just returned from Pachuca where he interviewed the club’s Mexican-American duo, about the insight he's gotten from the neighboring nations' star players and fans on what has become one of the world’s greatest soccer rivalries.

SOCCER AMERICA: What did you learn from your visit to Pachuca, which fields U.S. products Jose Francisco Torres and Herculez Gomez, whose play in the Mexican league led to their making the U.S. 2010 World Cup team?

They had to get over the initial bias most Mexican players have about American players. And they were seen as Americans – not Mexican-Americans – when they arrived.

Neither of them were perfectly bilingual at the time they went down. But as Paco Torres said, “You’re feet speak for you and eventually you’re respected for your abilities.”

And it doesn’t hurt to win six championships while he’s been there. He’s seen as a very strong central character in Pachuca.

SA: They're popular with the Pachuca fans?

We talked to a lot of Pachuca fans and not a one had a negative thing to say about the two players. Herculez is the only American to ever win a scoring title in a foreign league and the fact that he did it for Puebla, which is the oldest rivalry for Pachuca – they respect him for that.

SA: For “Gringos at the Gate” you interviewed stars from both the U.S. and Mexican national teams. How different were their views on the rivalry?

The biggest, most obvious was the sense of optimism on the part of the American players. One question we asked all the players from both sides was, “Who would win the World Cup first? Mexico or the USA?”

The words hadn’t even exited my mouth and the U.S. players would answer, “The U.S. It’s just a matter of time. Everything’s going for us.”

The Mexican players would inevitably pause. And there’d be a thought. And then they’d finally say, “It would be Mexico of course.” But it wasn’t an immediate answer for them.

SA: Why would the Mexican players be less optimistic?

Ricardo Pelaez said the Mexicans are fearful of how good the U.S. could get. They see that everything else the Americans cared about or wanted, they eventually got.

He phrased it: “They grab it with their talons like an eagle and they refuse to let it go until they own it.”

I think that’s a pretty common feeling of the Mexican players we talked to.

SA: What kind of reactions did you get from Mexican fans on the U.S. team's rise?

PABLO MIRALLES: They use the term “mental toughness” a lot. The players and the fans –- what separates Mexican and U.S. players – mentalidad.

The U.S. players don’t know they should lose, one Mexican fan told us. They don’t know they shouldn't beat these teams they sometimes beat.

SA: In the last decade the USA has dominated its encounters with Mexico on U.S. soil (while Mexico keeps winning in Mexico) even though Mexico gets greater fan support in U.S. stadiums than the host thanks to Mexican-Americans. Did any of the Mexican players have a theory on why that support doesn't translate to Mexican victories?

Alberto Garcia-Aspe said this was actually a detriment for the Mexican team because they felt more pressure to win in the U.S.

SA: What struck you about the difference between U.S. fans and Mexican-American fans?

On average, the Mexican-American fans knew more about the U.S. team than the U.S. fans. Mind you, some of the American fans were super, hyper-aware.

SA: Why do you think that is?

One example, when the rosters were announced for the 2010 World Cup, ESPN had a short show on the announcement, which was very orchestrated, and then you’d get the scrolling thing on the players.

The Spanish-language stations had wall-to-wall five-hours analysis -- and that’s on U.S. team! Not just the Mexican team.

SA: How do you think the Mexico-USA rivalry ranks among the world’s biggest soccer rivalries?

In Europe there are a lot of great soccer nations, and they don’t play each other all that often. In Concacaf there are two big fish, and there used to be only one, Mexico.

That makes it a lot more furious rivalry, from a soccer standpoint, and then add all the historical, cultural and demographic issues, it’s really hard to imagine right now a more intense rivalry.

(Pablo Miralles is the writer/producer/director of “Gringos at the Gate,” a documentary about "two vastly different cultures colliding on the soccer
field," is scheduled for release later this year.)