“They’re crazy about soccer down there. Should I be worried if, by chance, the U.S. beats Mexico?” I asked a friend a few days before my flight to Mexico City. “Bring a Canadian flag,” he replied.
Three days into my stay, I heard a crowd streaming by my hotel room a block from the Zócalo. When I looked out the balcony and saw the passing crowd carrying Mexican flags and wearing green Mexico t-shirts, I knew a match was imminent.
Mexico was one of seven cities selected around the world – the only one in the Americas – to participate in the FIFA Fan Fest, an international program put on by the governing body of the World Cup. As a result, several TV screens were erected in the city square for free viewing of the 64 World Cup matches. There had been modest crowds the previous two days; now that Mexico had a match, the atmosphere was noticeably shifted.
I approached the historic Zócalo, walking with the crowd, watching the people gather. Two days ago I’d visited the Cathedral and the Templo Mayor, along with the magnificent mural by Diego Rivera at the Palacio Nacional. Yesterday I’d seen the pyramids at Teotihuican. The wonders of Mexico City and its environs had enraptured me, with the Museo de Anthropologia, Parque Chapultepec and Museo Frida Kahlo still to come. But today was the day for fútbol.
World Cup fever had overtaken everything. It seemed as if the city had shut down. Those businesses that were still open had portable TVs tuned to the game. I had no idea of the magnitude of the crowd, however, until I entered the restaurant of the Majestic Hotel overlooking the Zócalo.
The sheer volume of the people packed into the massive square was now astonishingly clear. It only seemed like all 20 million people in the city were here, but it was actually around 60,000. There was, as far as I could see, no belligerent jostling for position, no drunken outbursts – unpleasant elements I’ve experienced occasionally at American sporting events. There was only a mass of humanity, unified in spirit, with a single purpose in mind: survive and advance. This struck me as nationalism at its best and healthiest. I watched and waited for Mexico to score so the crowd would go bananas.
Days earlier, I had seen a TV clip of the Zócalo crowd jumping up and down in unison and erupting in ecstasy as Mexico defeated perennial soccer power France. I wanted to see this outburst of joy in person. I wanted to hear Vi-va May-hee-co screamed by young and old, rich and poor. The finger wave, exemplifying the unified spirit of the crowd, tried to will the ball into the net – but to no avail. Uruguay shut out Mexico 1-0. The crowd walked away subdued and resigned, but proud. The loss was handled with grace and dignity. Life moved on as it always did after these disappointments. There would be another day, another match.
I thought about how much joy would be unleashed in this metropolis, in this country, if they ever won the World Cup (similar to how I used to imagine how New Orleans would react if they ever won the Super Bowl). Mexico lost the match, but the crowd still had each other to root together with next time. They had also acquired a new fan.