US, Media Succumb to Azteca
Welcome to the world's most inhospitable stadium, which proved too much for the media, the Panamanian referee and the U.S. national team (again) in Wednesday's World Cup qualifier. "It's hard to play here," Landon Donovan said. "It wears you out. It's just exhausting."
The afternoon that concluded with Mexico's 2-1 victory began auspiciously enough, both on and off the field. The country was energized for the game and the opportunity to take three points from their rivals. The morning TV shows were entirely devoted to the match, with hosts and hostesses wearing green shirts and sombreros and producers showing footage from helicopters flying over both Azteca and El Tri's training facility.
Outside Azteca, it was a fiesta. The lines at the gates were hundreds deep before noon, and the undulating throng of green made for an impressive sight. Dozens and dozens of souvenir tents and makeshift taquerias added a festive, organic touch to a surreal scene completed by the soda, beer, phone plan and video game hawkers and their inflatable props. Someone was handing out plastic horns that, while smaller than vuvuzelas, managed to be even more annoying.
The stadium itself is astonishing, both for what it gets right and what it gets wrong. The stands soar vertically into the sky, which along with the very narrow stairs and aisles can almost turn the stomach. The seating appears to be made out of whatever the workers finishing the facility in 1966 could find nearby. There are chairs of a variety of kinds and colors of plastic, metal and concrete bleachers, etc. The press area was at midfield and included a wooden desk across the first row of seats. There were a few electric outlets, but not nearly enough for those assembled. The wireless internet didn't work, and the area was filthy and so congested that anyone wishing to get in or out had to either climb across their colleagues or negotiate a six-inch wide catwalk in front of the TV announcers.
Other than the large video screens behind either goal, Azteca does not look like anyone's invested a peso in it in 40 years. But the fans bring the decrepit edifice to life. They were in full voice even as the players were warming up, booing and whistling as the Americans took the field and drowning out the Star Spangled Banner with their horns. The noise at kickoff was shrill and almost tangible.
And then, nine minutes later, Charlie Davies did the unthinkable. He silenced Azteca.
The sudden absence of noise after Davies curled that perfect shot past Guillermo Ochoa was eerie and powerful, but short lived. Davies called that moment "amazing" and "what you live for, especially as a striker." The lead, the U.S. national team's first in its frustrating history at Azteca, evoked memories of that "can you believe this?" feeling during the early stages of the Confederations Cup final against Brazil. But the stadium and El Tri soon roared to life, and the score was level following Israel Castrol's 19th-minute drive that went in off the crossbar.
"The guy hit an absolute dream goal. Give that guy 1,000 shots like that and he's not going to score that goal," Donovan said. Perhaps it was the thin, high-altitude air, which you could feel as you climbed the steep ramps encircling the stadium. U.S. goalkeper Tim Howard had said the ball moved a bit differently here. Funny things happen at Azteca.
Panamanian referee Roberto Moreno booked Oguchi Onyewu, Jay DeMerit and Carlos Bocanegra before halftime. Onyewu, who was the Americans' best player throughout, will miss the qualifier against El Salvador on Sept. 5. The man in the middle made no egregious errors, but the calls certainly seemed to tilt Mexico's way. Had the Mexican federation bothered to provide statistics a more specific analysis could be provided, but the Americans' frustration with the officiating was obvious. Donovan chased down Moreno after being yanked by Gerardo Torrado in midfield midway through the first half. Mexico's captain was involved in another incident in the 75th, joining a teammate to try to pull a cramping Davies to his feet. U.S. substitute Benny Feilhaber rushed in to push the Mexicans away, and while both he and Torrado saw yellow, there was no acknowledgment of the hosts' provocation.
At around the 72nd minute, Davies ran onto a perfect through ball from Michael Bradley, rounded Ochoa and scored. The linesman's flag was raised. It was a very close call, and perhaps incorrect. There were no replays available in the stadium or on press row.
"It seems like when we come to a place like this the most intimidated person in the stadium is the referee, and that's disappointing," Howard said. "The bar is probably tilted in their favor and that's unfortunate because it was a hard-fought game."
"The great teams learn how to deal with that type of stuff," Davies said.
Then came Sabah's winner and the beer shower. Donovan was subjected to some abuse of his own as he attempted to take a corner kick in the final moments. He was pelted with bottles and cups (as seen above), some full (rumors had it that some of the liquid wasn't beer), and at one point he held out his arms appealing for some kind of intervention. But there is nowhere to turn at Azteca.
The U.S. did not deserve to win the game. They yielded far too much possession, had trouble distributing the ball cleanly out of the back and created no clear-cut chances other than Davies' goal and the questionable offside call. At the same time, much of Mexico's possession was fruitless, and many of the "ole!"s cascading from the stands were for 15-yard passes between defenders half a field from the U.S. goal.
"It was a tight game and a fair score," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. When asked if the environment at Azteca contributed to the result, he refused to give the Mexicans any satisfaction. "No," was the curt reply.
Following Bradley's press conference, the media was invited to the "mixed zone" outside the locker rooms, where players can stop and answer questions if they wish. Usually a railing of some kind separates the reporters and television cameras from the athletes. On Wednesday, that railing was placed about five feet from the wall on one side of the very large tunnel leading to the field. There was not enough room for two people to pass each other comfortably, and yet this area was designed to house well over 100 people, their equipment, and of course the requisite autograph seekers who somehow manage to bypass security. For approximately 45 minutes, we waited inside this cramped space, unable to move and pressed tightly against each other, the railing and the wall. Seasoned journalists were saying it was the worst they'd ever seen.
Finally, a few players emerged. The U.S. goal scorer was the first.
"To be a great team you have to learn how to control the lead and unfortunately we were unable to do that. We were unfortunate today to have some bad calls go against us. We have a long way to go before the World Cup and I'm pretty hopeful we'll be able to correct our mistakes," Davies said. "We know we're a great team. I think we have what it takes to win here, but today we were a bit unlucky."
The team was in a rush. The bus was leaving a little more than an hour after the final whistle and headed straight to the airport. No reason to stay around any longer than necessary. The media faced a more difficult exit back through the mixed zone bottleneck. A few laptops had internet access, and reporters took turns filing their stories from flash drives. A bit later, more than seven hours after the gates had opened, a bus returned us to our hotels. Andy Mead, a photographer based in North Carolina, shared some of his photos as we prepared to head back. The final shot was of the pitch around the corner flag where Donovan had asked for help, littered with bottles and cups.
The U.S. national team is now 0-23-1 on Mexican soil, and likely won't be back at Estadio Azteca until World Cup qualifying requires it four years from now. Perhaps by then, the team and the rest of us will be ready to overcome the most fearsome home-field advantage in sports.