Silence swept through the anxious crowd. Sweaty fans stopped pushing for a moment and erupted in cheers. Toluca had scored in the final shot. Loud soccer chants began, along with hugging and jumping. Beer, red t-shirts and baseball hats flew through the air.
We were watching the soccer match in the alameda – the shady central park here in downtown Toluca. Hundreds of rabid/drunk fans strained to see the screen up on stage, the far side of a sprawling white tent set up behind the fierce statue of Cuahutemoc, one of Mexico’s favorite Aztec warriors. He stands tall in the middle of the park, scowling and brandishing a mean-looking club. 500 years ago Cuahutemoc battled the Spanish and finally endured torture ordered by Cortez.If he were real, I’m sure he would have turned around and watched with us. Even before the Spanish conquest Mexicans played ball games. Ball courts figure prominently in the ruins of famous Mayan cities like Chichen Itza, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
2,000 years ago, warriors played and royalty watched. These ball courts varied in size, but always featured a flat, grassy playing field and sloped stone walls. Players struggled to put a heavy ball of rubber through a vertical hoop of stone. Although the nuances of the game have been lost to history, it is believed that players used only their shoulders or hips, depending on whom you ask.
What is known is that losing team was ritually sacrificed afterwards, a great honor of course. The Mayan worldview had a much different concept of life and death. Sacrifice after defeat, either in battle or in a ball game, was a better option than living in shame.
Nowadays soccer has replaced this ancient sport, and though no one is sacrificed, passions run strong. Like much of the world, Mexico’s most popular sport is soccer by far. Unfortunately, like many developing countries they have a sort of athletic brain drain. Great players end up playing in European leagues, like Chicharito in Manchester United.
Mexico has two seasons – clausura and apretura – one in fall and one in spring. In Toluca, where I live in central Mexico, the Red Devils play in a stadium 10 minutes walking distance from my house. There are games every other Sunday at noon. Tickets cost about five dollars (70 Mexican pesos) for the cheap seats, slightly more for others. Beers too are cheap at 20 pesos a cup, less than two dollars.
On game days nearby streets are choked with traffic. The main road that runs past the stadium is closed and full of food and clothing vendors. You can get all kinds of tacos, huaraches (a large flat crispy tortilla-like things covered with beans, cilantro, sliced cooked cactus, powdered cheese and hot sauce), and cheap bootleg Mexican soccer merchandise.
Like Wrigley Field in Chicago, the stadium is totally surrounded by the neighborhood – no parking lot or lonely structure in the outskirts of town. It’s so small so that there are no bad views. I like the cheap seats; rowdiness abounds. Huge drumming crews pound out beats throughout the match. Drunken fans throw empty beer cups. For a student of the Spanish language, like me, it is a great way to hear some excellent bad words in actual, enthusiastic use.
Because it’s so close, about an hour or two from Mexico City, many soccer fans from Toluca prefer one of Mexico City’s three teams, like the Pumas. Or, they root for the Chivas of Guadalajara, by far Mexico’s most beloved soccer club. The Chivas have a policy to only hire Mexican players, ensuring their durable popularity.
In the summer of 2009 Toluca won in penalties, which is like a shootout. Being from the U.S. I didn’t know anything about soccer, so I had to relate everything to hockey.
In and all around the park we heard cheering, car horns honking, yelling and chanting. An impromptu parade was going strong. The sidewalks were packed with fans in red – the color of the Red Devils. Most cars on the road were decorated with red streamers and handmade neon signs. Passengers hung out the windows with their cans of foam, spraying pedestrians and yelling.
Certain Mexican occasions call for these cans of foam, which is a lot like silly string. They run around and spray everyone with it. You see this on Mexican Independence Day (Sept. 16th) as well as after favorable soccer finals. Also you usually don’t see public drinking in Mexico, but on this day there were plenty of beers out in the open. The street was packed, and it was LOUD.
My friend visiting from Canada was confused. How often are games? Twice a week? I hadn’t properly explained that this was the final. He thought it was just a regular season game. If only daily life were so much fun.
The noise and revelry lasted far into the night. This win restored the faith of many Toluca fans who had held out against the derision of their friends and family through so many bad years.
Now, fast forward past a few seasons of mediocre playing to December 2, 2012, and Toluca’s next chance at the title. Like in the summer of 2009, this game was on a Sunday. But now the starting time was moved back to 7 p.m.
I walked past the stadium about 30 minutes after the game had started. (What do you call it? Kickoff? Faceoff?) You will never see more police in riot gear than at a soccer game in Mexico. They fortified the walls of the old concrete stadium. Above them large neon lights glowed red.
The road was blocked off and lined with the usual taco stands, t-shirt vendors, and promotional setups, like a big inflatable screen that showed Corona beer advertisements but no game. I strolled around, just long enough to be offered fake tickets and notice that the crowd inside was pretty quiet.
I went home and waited for the noise. 8 p.m. 9 p.m. Nothing. No yelling, no chanting, no car horns honking. They had lost, a painful 1-4. The winners were the Xolos from Tijuana. It was their first soccer final after only four years of existence and 18 months in Mexico’s premier division.
So it was a bummer for Toluca. Disappointed fans will have to wait a few more months for the spring season. This time, no one got to spray each other with foam, but at least all the players kept their heads.
Ted Campbell writes about travel, music, culture, food, and mountain biking. He lives in Mexico and writes a blog called No Hay Bronca.
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