Viva Azteca: Yakkin' About Soccer's Strangest, Scariest Stadium

Estadio Azteca is one of the stranger, better and more terrifying places on earth to watch a soccer game. And maybe to watch anything, actually.
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Aaron Gordon: We both attended the US-Mexico match at Estadio Azteca, insofar as we both went to the same stadium at the same time and watched the same goal-less soccer game, but that’s where the similarities of our respective experiences end. I was constantly surrounded by riot cops and police escorts; you were not. I had an assortment of dollar-store items thrown at me; you did not. I watched a Mexican fan climb a barbed-wire fence in an attempt to gain access to 400 American soccer fans so he could presumably accomplish his lifelong goal of climbing a barbed-wire fence and then do whatever he clearly really wanted to do on the other side; you, presumably, did not. What did you see and experience at Azteca?

Eric Nusbaum: I’ve been living in Mexico CIty for about six months. My first weekend here, I went to Mexico’s version of El Clasico, featuring Chivas and America at Azteca. There were about 75,000 people in the crowd, including lots of mixed groups of Chivas and America fans. The atmosphere was more convivial than any Dodgers/Giants game I’ve been to. When I told my Mexican friends that, they just said “wait until US-Mexico.” Now I understand what I was waiting for. I never felt unsafe, but I was sitting in the lower level, in neutral colors. It also helps that I was there more for the spectacle than the soccer. I didn’t come into the game with a particularly strong desire to reveal the giant tattoo of Uncle Sam that may or may not cover my entire chest. But you were in the section where people did reveal their tattoos?

Aaron: Both sides did lots of vulgar gesticulating, shouting, middle-school-level translating, and general expressions of discontent. However, the bravery of the fans was directly proportional to how deep in their respective sections they were; the Outlaws directly in the center were the most boisterous. I was adjacent to the riot cops, so I was pretty quiet. You were wearing neutral colors, but presumably people could still tell who you were rooting for.

Eric: This might be surprising, but I received zero negative vibes. We got to the stadium about two hours early, and hung out in our seats waiting for beer sales to start thirty minutes before gametime. In all of that, we didn’t even get a wayward look. There were a few solo American fans near us decked out in red, white, and blue, and from what I could see they didn’t have any problems either. When you’re by yourself, what can you do but shake the hand of the fan next to you and say good luck? Actually after the game, one of my friends, the most obviously American in the group, was tapped on the shoulder by a Mexican fan and told “good game.” The atmosphere in Azteca was madness, nothing like anything I’ve ever seen. But person to person, it was all very benign. How was getting to the game? And wandering D.F. before and after in a group of very clearly marked American fans?

Aaron: Before the match was quite friendly actually, it was after the match when the civility dissipated, as civility does, in a haze of lite beer. The morning of the match, around 11:30, I was walking to the pre-game party and saw four American bros standing at the Angel, wearing American soccer jerseys, sombreros, and draped in American flags, staking their territory. A group of El Tri fans were glaring at them from the other side of the roundabout (see at right), trying to murder them with their eyes, but never approached. As we waited to board the buses on Reforma, people were stopping to take pictures with us and everything was quite pleasant, even though we were singing, chanting and being general Obnoxious Americans. After the match, when the Mexicans didn’t get the result they wanted, relations turned sour, things were thrown, and Mexican fans tried to breach the barrier on multiple fronts. I’m finding it very difficult, because of that, to imagine leaving Estadio Azteca without being escorted by hundreds of riot cops.

Eric: I swear to God, no trouble whatsoever. That said, there was always the lurking possibility that something could go terribly wrong. The heavy, and heavily armored police presence didn’t necessarily lessen that sensation. If anything, it added to the feeling that I was a sort of secret agent behind enemy lines. Well, except for the fact that I’ve come to generally like Mexican soccer, adore Chicharito, and don’t consider them enemies at all; maybe just “behind lines,” then. After the game, we just cruised out into the dejected masses, then went to find the mini-van taxi we had arranged to take us home. His battery had died, so we spent an hour trying to flag down cars and get a jump. Needless to say, after that game, people weren’t lining up for the chance to help a bunch of gringos get back to their fancy neighborhood.

Aaron: That’s a lot like how it was for us except that we were quite literally surrounded by riot cops who were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, holding riot shields, as people were hurling assorted objects over the riot cop line at us. Otherwise exactly the same.

Aaron: But the difference in our departure experience has me thinking. There’s an economic term called “moral hazard,” which we all got to know so very well during The Bailout Years. It basically means people, be they bank executives or some dude trying throw a full beer off my forehead, are more likely to do risky things when they won’t experience the costs of those risks. For example: you yell “Fuck Mexico!” in the general direction of Mexican fans, the chances of bodily harm are high. An Outlaw standing in the center of a group of 400 American fans surrounded by hundreds of riot cops yells “Fuck Mexico!” and the chances of bodily harm are pretty low. So the million-dollar question, for me, is whether all this protection for the Americans necessary, or if it just incentivized, or at least created the conditions for more extreme soccer-dickishness.

Eric: So acting like a punk at a soccer game under the protection of a SWAT team is not so different from driving recklessly safely ensconced in a seatbelt and surrounded by airbags? That actually works for me. The other thing to think about: Barbed wire and riot shields don’t exactly calm the nerves. Not only is there a moral hazard aspect at play, but the psychological impact of all that militarized stuff everywhere has to be significant. When the fans of the other team are across the stadium-equivalent of the Maginot Line, it’s hard not to see them as enemies, and behave accordingly. Why wouldn’t that drunk fan try to climb the barbed wire and drop a grenade into the American trenches? Set it up like that, and it’s tough not to see it like that.

Aaron: Even before we arrived at the stadium, we had a police escort, Federales with machine guns. Its no wonder when we first laid eyes on Azteca, the first chant the Outlaws sang was “THIS IS WHERE WE DIE.” The buses had a motorcade that was shutting down traffic, at least to the best of their abilities, so even the fans seeing us come in were perceiving us as “others” before we even arrived at Azteca, to an even greater degree than our jerseys would already have distinguished us as such. Then we get escorted in under Riot Protection, and we are clearly NOT YOU to the home crowd to the greatest degree possible. It makes for a surreal and super-charged stadium atmosphere, but a shitty way to perceive other human beings.

Eric: There you have it. If there’s one lesson to be learned here, it’s that sports fans only barely qualify as human beings.

Images courtesy of Aaron Gordon.

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