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A true friendly: Mexico edges United States in World Cup qualifying

COLUMBUS, Ohio — On Friday night, just before the kickoff of a World Cup qualifying match against Mexico, the most ardent fans of the U.S. men's national soccer team unveiled a giant graphical display, known as a tifo, at one end of Mapfre Stadium to show their support for the Americans.

Tifos are common before big games — the last time these teams played here, the American tifo was of an enormous eagle above the word "HOME" — and their designs and messages are closely held secrets until they are revealed. But the one that was revealed Friday was just a little different from most: It was missing one of its panels.

The piece, according to one of the tifo's designers, was removed this week because of the charged political atmosphere that has followed Donald Trump's victory in Tuesday's presidential election. According to Kevin Glenn, a designer and vice president of a local chapter of the supporters' group known as the American Outlaws, the deleted panel "wasn't derogatory toward Mexican fans, but it was ribbing, or maybe intimidating," and given the current climate, "it just didn't need to be there."

"It probably wouldn't have caused any issues," Glenn said, "but we just don't want a potential for any blemish on this at all."

The result was enough to do that for the Americans: the United States lost 2-1 on a late goal by Mexico's Rafael Márquez, spoiling the festive first night of the final round of regional World Cup qualifying and putting the Americans in an early hole as they head to Costa Rica on Tuesday for their second match.

Still, the restraint shown by the U.S. fans in their pregame tifo was notable within the soccer world — where fans, particularly in Europe and elsewhere, can often be obscene, if not disgraceful, in their behavior en masse — but it also was representative of the unusual feelings around this game, which is the most significant sporting event involving a U.S. national team since Trump became the president-elect.

That the match is against Mexico — whose citizens Trump insulted during his campaign and whose northern border Trump has vowed to separate from the United States with a huge wall — has only furthered the abnormal vibe.

"It's been very, very intense," said Manny Zambrano, who was born in Monterrey, Mexico, but has lived in Columbus, Ohio, since he was 9. "Obviously the election took most everyone by surprise."

Zambrano planned to be at the match Friday night supporting Mexico. It was expected that only a few hundred fans out of the more than 20,000 inside Mapfre Stadium would be cheering for the visitors — that is one of the reasons U.S. Soccer chose to play the game here — but many other Mexico fans were part of the pregame tailgates around the venue and watched the game at nearby bars and restaurants.

Another Mexico supporter, Blanca Garcia, said she and a group of friends who had tickets to the game and planned to cheer for Mexico had a meeting this week that quickly turned emotional, as a discussion that was supposed to be about the game kept veering back to politics.

Garcia said her fan group was organizing an elaborate pregame party near the stadium, which was to include Mexican musicians, a DJ and free food during the buildup to the game. Anyone was welcome to come to the gathering, she said, and she expressed hope that there would not be any conflicts between Mexico fans and those arriving to cheer the United States.

"Honestly, from the talks we had yesterday — people are scared," she said, referring both to the game and to the future under Trump. "They're scared in a way that they don't want to be disrespected, don't want to be cut down. They don't want to be disrespected and have to sit back and not do anything or say anything."

Garcia added that for her, as for many Americans, the results of the election had prompted a re-examination of what she thought she knew about the leanings of others in her community. While some might assume that all the members of her group would have opposed Trump's election, she said that was not the case. That led to some frank exchanges this week.

"I felt like I was definitely angry with some of the things I was hearing them say," Garcia said, noting that one friend, whose parents are Mexicans with permanent residency in the United States, was outspoken in supporting Trump and his plan to build a wall. "He thinks there are a lot of people here that shouldn't be here," she said. "We have people in our group that are undocumented, who want desperately to stay and aren't doing anything, so it was very awkward."

Brock Hemphill, president of the American Outlaws chapter in Columbus and a veteran of earlier U.S.-Mexico meetings here, said the group's organizers had taken steps to ensure that the atmosphere at the stadium was rowdy but respectful. The Outlaws planned to sing a verse from a Woody Guthrie folk song, This Land Is Your Land, before the game, and they placed monitors wearing yellow badges in each section.

There had been online talk among some fans, Hemphill said, about possibly chanting, "Build that wall!" and other taunts at Mexico fans, but "we're going to shut anything like that down immediately."

On Thursday, at the Outlaws' traditional night-before party, Mexican fans mingled easily with U.S. fans at a bar. Several players from the U.S. team, which has players from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, said they expected the crowd at the game to be inclusive — yet still passionate.

"People want to politicize this game, but I don't think there is a need for that," said Alejandro Bedoya, a New Jersey-born midfielder of Colombian descent.

The teams' coaches — both of whom immigrated to the United States — struck a similar tone, though Javier Hernandez, Mexico's star forward, said he understood the passion that some Mexican fans, in particular, might feel about the game coming so soon after the election.

"There are moments that are not so nice for some people, and it wasn't the best for Latinos and all of us," Hernandez said in an interview with Univision this week. "Sadly, that was the decision that the country took. If our game can give them some joy and take away the sadness they are going through, well, good then."

Of course, that sentiment seems to presuppose certain leanings for a large demographic group as well, and postelection results have indicated that such blanket suppositions are misguided. That is why, Garcia said, her group of Mexico fans ultimately decided to do its best to table any political talk and, for a few hours at least, just focus on the game.

"It's been so powerful, but we're putting aside what happened on Tuesday and trying not to make things bad at the game," she said.

Then she hesitated. "Or, at least, not make things worse."

A true friendly: Mexico edges United States in World Cup qualifying 11/12/16 [Last modified: Friday, November 11, 2016 11:45pm]
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