July 27, 2015
There were twenty minutes left to play the Mexicans are up on the Jamaicans 3-0 and I had just found a seat 10 rows from the field. The U.S. was supposed to be here at this 2015 Gold Cup final but the Americans lost Wednesday night.
From this close the action in front of you was very real and I am reminded these are simply men playing a game, the same one you play in a backyard. I was as close right now as I would be at any high school game.
But I was in a swarm of fans like a coin in a bottle — 68,390 of them, Sunday’s game at the Linc was a sellout — an announcer said, in a stadium dominated by those rooting for the Mexican men's national soccer team. All afternoon among dozens of tailgates and since the game's start shortly after 8 o'clock there had been a vital pulse.
Anywhere you turned you were bound to see the red, white, and green tri-colors of Mexico painted across a face. This might have well been a home game for the Mexicans and this struck me as important to note.
Each time the Jamaican keeper took a six-yarder the Mexican fans yelled "oooaah," the way basketball fans make noise during a foul shot or at a football game during kickoff.
Cut back a few hours earlier to around 5:00 in the evening and the parking lot was filled with the rowdy Mexican faithful the way it will be stenciled with raucous Eagles fans come autumn. This is where the cheers of "Meh-hee-co Meh-hee-co!" began.
It was hot but there was an all right breeze and bands of white clouds were scooting above. Soon a coach bus pulled up under I-95 near the D section in the parking lot outside Lincoln Financial Field. Off came a troop of 51 Jamaican fans down from Brooklyn.
The bus trip was organized by Nello Champagne a 52-year-old Brooklyn man born in Jamaica. In the late 80s recruiters from the U.S. came to his hometown of Clarendon in the south of Jamaica because of a nursing shortage; his wife was hired and he immigrated a few years later.
"The score tells it all," Richard Holloway tells me, referring to critics who said Jamaica was really not good enough to win the game. He talked about how it lost only 1-0 to Argentina in the Copa América last month. This was a big game for a squad that failed to qualify for the 2013 Gold Cup.
Holloway, 38, was born in Jamaica, lived for 15 years in the U.S., and drove down from Enfield in central Connecticut with a few friends and bought tickets at the gate. His friend Courtney Graham, 23, told me she followed the MLS, women's professional soccer and the Champions League in Europe.
I am unsure if it is okay to be surprised by how many Mexican and Jamaican fans made the trip from various places. After all, the game was sold out. There were various plots of Americans in among the tailgaters as well, their attitudes more subdued though, after the U.S. loss to Jamaica.
That made this the first Gold Cup final in the past six the U.S. had failed to reach. This win was Mexico's seventh. Every year except 2000 the U.S. or Mexico has been in the final, with Mexico being the most successful. In October the U.S. will play Mexico in a match between the 2013 and 2015 Gold Cup winners to see who advances to the 2017 Confederations Cup, a direct path to the 2018 World Cup.
Founded in 1963, the tournament brought together teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean, under CONCACAF its governing body. Mexico and Jamaica competed last month in the Copa América, a similar tournament featuring South and Central American teams and won this year by Chile.
Jamaica failed to win a game there so when the U.S. fell to Jamaica Wednesday night 2-1 many were more than disappointed with the Americans' play. What would have been the difference in the atmosphere if this were the expected U.S. vs. Mexico final? I wonder if the U.S. was playing whether or not there would have been more fans at the game simply because they lived in or close to Philadelphia.
As early as 4:30 in the afternoon a flank of Mexican faithful had collected into a small parade in the parking lot banging drums, tooting those horns you always hear during the World Cup and spreading general cheer. They were here to celebrate and they were here to win. Not by penalty kicks but under good circumstances. To play strong, beautiful soccer; the kind that unrolls with the speed of a wave.
"It's pretty important to win ... to score in a good way," says Beto Tovar, 21. "To show that they are dominant."
He made the trip from Richmond, Va. and is a first-generation American — his parents were born in Mexico.
To be sure there was a kindness spreading throughout the parking lot before the game. Talking with some Mexican fans who live in Kennett Square I was offered a beer. Then tacos: grilled chorizo al pastor. There is fresh cilantro and chopped onions and hot sauce.
One of the men I'm talking with — the man who asked if I wanted a taco — tells me he's an illegal and says: "You see all these people here ... this is our country."
He had pointed at the rows of fans tailgating. They were happy to share and happy to talk about Mexico and soccer and about their lives. I was urged to have another taco. I have found this sharing and friendliness at Phillies and Eagles games at concerts here in Philadelphia, too, and this openness is perhaps part of why many people come to sports.
In a few hours the parking lot had filled; a small soccer village had taken root in this football and baseball town.
Throughout the afternoon I talked with near three-dozen people and a majority say they followed soccer, somewhat at least; the Americans too. A group of them had made the trip from Missouri. Mostly in their late-20s, they played soccer in college.
They live in Kansas City and were expecting the U.S. to be in the final and bought tickets months ago. When the U.S. lost to Jamaica they bought tickets to the third-place game held Saturday night in Chester. The U.S. went and lost that game as well, to Panama, whom the Americans beat in the 2013 final.
Inside, the stadium had the feel and noise of a football game but the speed of play was more like an NCAA March Madness game even though the scoring is much different. The thing about soccer is you have to let it happen but every touch and pass is important. At least that's what it feels like to watch.
Possession went 52 percent to Jamaica in the first half but the Jamaicans launched zero shots on goal compared to Mexico's three. One found the back of the net in the 31st minute when Andrés Guardado put the Mexicans ahead one-nil. Before the goal you got the sense Mexico was winning the same way you can tell what boxer is ahead in a match.
I was happy when I looked up the possession percentage on a stat sheet given in the press box at halftime and saw that the official statistics reflected what I felt about the first half. Much of the half was played in the middle-third of the field with Mexico swelling forward when it could — Guardado is a midfielder.
In contrast to being out in the stands the press box was a sleepy, quiet, perhaps overly serious air-conditioned hall that reminded me of a master's class at night school … a business class even though I have never been to one. That is well and as it needs to be but I was interested in what it’s like to be in the crowd. It is the feeling of being outside that made the game come alive.
I spent the first fifteen minutes of the second half yawning in the press box even as Mexico scored two goals. It was as it scored its third — when a Jamaican defender bunked his attempt to clear a lulling Mexican cross, one of those “I could have done that” plays — when I went to the other side of the stadium and found my seat ten rows off the field in the 120 section.
In the 120 section so close to the field I was struck by how the game almost slowed down so you could see the cuts and each pass -- even the ones that weren't made but maybe should have been. You saw how athletic these players are, how agile; quick. I was reminded of Saturdays in my grade school days playing striker — left wing. I wondered how many at this game, how many watching elsewhere, many thousands likely, also used to or still do play soccer. I wonder if it's a game that's catching on more in the U.S. As more first-generation American children of Central and South American immigrants come of age is it possible there is a soccer culture dribbling in on its heels?
Exal Roblero and some friends drove eight hours from Goldsboro, N.C. They were also at the semi-finals game versus Panama at the Georgia Dome on Wednesday night and Roblero has been to other Gold Cup games supporting Mexico in past tournaments. He is 32, works year-round as a landscaper and has two children, 10 and 12.
"I'm Mexican and I love soccer," he told me. American born, his parents are from Mexico.
Earlier Champagne told me he was at the game not only because the Jamaicans had won but "because we are Jamaican and we are supporting our team.”
I got that same sort of comfortable hometown pride feeling from Roblero and his group. They were proud of where they came from and just as proud of where they were now. I couldn’t help but thinking of the word respect now I as reflected on talking with them though it was for a short time.
Through the whole contest: it's loud. Ten minutes before the game the loud chants of "Meh-hee-co Meh-hee-co" began. There were even a few irrelevant but sportsmanlike U.S.A. chants.
But through the whole of the match it was the cry "Meh-hee-coo Meh-hee-coo!" that leapt through the stadium despite the many Jamaican flags chattering in the wind. At times flashing on the big screen was the image of Mexican coach Miguel Herrera and his recognizable green tie.
If you've been to a football game you know what it's like when someone gets hit hard and in soccer it is the same way. You generally feel the tempo of the game has been stopped by the foul and sometimes you see why the player did it. A defender doesn't want to give up a goal like you don't want to get beat deep.
So in the seventh minute it made sense when a defender laid out a hard foul on a streaming Jamaican player stopping a rush but giving Jamaica a free kick just outside the eighteen — similar to their goal against the U.S. the other night — marking the game's first yellow card. Then it was on the heels of a yellow when Mexico scored its first goal in the 31st minute.
After Mexico scored its third goal the second half play became slower but all along the crowd remained kinetic and hopeful. Jamaica scored eventually in the 79th minute making the final score 3-1. After the game the Mexican players and faithful were elated as gold confetti descended upon the winners.
I thought of the just-under 70,000 people driving home to where it was they lived, wondering if many of them had to be at work Monday morning like Roblero and I'm reminded of how happy he was to say “tomorrow's gonna be a long day.”