Today is Saturday, and this time of year that means college football. On Saturdays I try to do some kind of Mexican history or culture on this blog to provide some insight into life here. Today I am going to combine some Mexican history which also includes American football. I am Facebook friends with a couple of Mexican guys who run American football leagues and teams in Chetumal. They are big football fans, and one of them shared this article yesterday that I thought a lot of you may like. I wrote an article about the football team and league in Chetumal a couple of months back.
There used to be a sport more popular in Mexico than soccer. Then something terrible happened
BY ROBERT ANDREW POWELL
PHOTOGRAPHY BY RODRIGO CRUZ
OCTOBER 27, 2016
There’s a space in Mexico City called the Plaza of the Three Cultures. It’s an archeological treasure, common ground for different empires that have occupied Mexico over the centuries. Aztec ruins date back to the ancient city they called Tlatelolco. Looming over the ruins is a Catholic church built by Spaniards, who colonized the country in the 1500s. Finally there’s the skyscraper former home of Mexico’s Department of Foreign Affairs, representing the current state.
Incorporated into the plaza is a wide slate patio, on which a small memorial has been erected. The memorial honors the victims of what’s widely regarded as Mexico’s darkest and bloodiest day. I’m surprised to be standing next to it. I came to Mexico to look at the country’s relationship with football, that most American of sports. Somehow my journey led me here to this plaza, and specifically to this memorial.
In three weeks, the National Football League will play its second-ever regular-season game in Mexico, and the first since 2005. Tickets for the contest between the Oakland Raiders and Houston Texans, to be played in the enormous Estadio Azteca, sold out in minutes. “Expanding our international series of regular-season games to Mexico marks an important step in our continued international growth,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said when the game was announced in February. “We have a tremendous, passionate fanbase in Mexico.”
I’ll admit to not being aware of that. When I’ve thought about Mexico and sports, football never came to mind. I think of soccer, of course, and then baseball. There’s boxing and bullfighting, also the physical theater of lucha libre. Charreada, which is similar to a rodeo, is Mexico’s official national sport. (Which I didn’t know, either.)
I knew that football was played here, but I thought its presence was minor, perhaps on the scale of cricket in the United States. I never realized that in Mexico football was once the most popular university sport. Or that this country’s legendary student uprising of 1968 started at a football game, and ended in gunshots right here in the plaza. Nor did I know that after the Tlatelolco Massacre, as it is called, the government—in an attempt to prevent future student unrest—broke up the most glamorous football program in the country. The game has never quite recovered.
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University of Mexico graduate Hector Castro, 62, is an ardent, longtime Pumas football fan.
“Football was more popular than soccer,” Hector Castro tells me. “Mucho mas! This stadium would be full. They could not fit more people. It was always packed.”
Castro is 62 years old, a medical doctor and a graduate of the University of Mexico, or UNAM. His college, one of the most prestigious schools in Latin America, has long sponsored Pumas, the best-known and most successful football team in the country. I ran into Castro on a warm Saturday in October, when I took in a Pumas game.
I arrived right after kickoff. The opposing team was the Eagles of the University of Chihuahua, from a Mexican state that borders Texas. I lived in Chihuahua a few years ago, so I initially sat on the visitors side of Estadio Olimpico, which is located just off the UNAM campus. Maybe 40 Aguilas fans watched the game with me. Police assigned to protect the fans chatted among themselves. The lone vendor didn’t carry a tray of Cokes or ice cream sandwiches or anything. He simply climbed up to my seat and said if there was anything I wanted, he’d go find it for me.
A cauldron from the 1968 Summer Olympics hovered over my head. I looked down at the rubber track that circles the playing field. A pit adjacent to the track conjured up a famous image of Bob Beamon soaring improbably far in Mexico City’s thin air. Goalposts stapled into the turf for the football game looked temporary and a little rickety, like you might find at an eight-man high school game deep in the Kansas prairie. The players seemed like typical football players, if a bit on the short side. The crowd, mostly Pumas fans sitting on the other side of the bowl, cheered every attempted long pass. That seemed to be the great appeal of the game—long passes.
The level of play matched the Division III college I attended in Wisconsin. Or maybe it was more like Division II, if I’m being fair. Chihuahua marched out to a 21-3 lead, which surprised me, as I’d never heard about the school’s football team when I lived there. (“It surprised us, too,” Pumas quarterback Rafael Arenas tells me after the game. “They’ve never been very good.”)
Robert Andrew Powell is the author of three books, including This Love Is Not For Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juarez and We Own This Game about football, politics and race in Miami, where he lives.
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Thanks for reading,
Stewart Rogers USA-South Carolina