Friday, May 15, 2009
Tecos. Pumas. Playoffs. ¿Que mas?
Last Saturday we planned to attend the Atlas-Pachuca futbol match, the last match of the Mexican futbol season to be held in the city of Guadalajara. Zach and Hannah and I sat outside making our final preparations when Chris came downstairs with bad news. “I just checked the Atlas website,” she said. “They’re closing the doors at Estadio Jalisco.”
For three weeks now the Mexican Futbol Federation has shuttered stadiums across Mexico for fear of the flu, playing the final games of the spring (Clausura) season without fan support. This week they went back and forth, first announcing closed doors, then opening them, and then, hours before the match was to begin, closing them again. There would be no Mexican soccer experience for Zach, the most die-hard soccer fan I know.
Disappointed but undaunted, we spent the last half of the weekend in Los Altos, and Z & H stayed in our “guest room,” which right now looks like the bedroom of a 13-year-old boy. The bed is covered with a Chivas bedspread, and it lays in the shadow of one wall plastered with photos of soccer players from around the world and another wall strewn with soccer jerseys from around Mexico. Gazing at the jersey collection through a sleep-induced haze Zach suddenly made a decision. Whether he attended a match or not, he would throw his support behind a Mexican soccer club. “The Owl, Matt,” he says. “The Owl.”
Now Zach is far too independent a sports fan to join either the Chivas, whose fan base is the most massive in Mexico, or the Pumas, who I’ve supported since our time in DF. Nor would he support Atlas, whose jersey Adam now proudly owns, nor even Pachuca, who currently stars a jugador from the US national team. No, rejecting all of these formidable clubs vying for his attention Zach instead opted for a Guadalajara team whose fan base is so small that a local taxi driver once told us that not even their family members support them. “Yep,” Zach said upon hearing that story, “That’s the team for me.” And so it was that Zachary Parris become a fan of the UAG Tecolotes.
That night we waited in the Lagos de Moreno bus station, aimlessly eyeing the newspapers when we suddenly noticed that the futbol playoff brackets had been announced. I looked at the schedule for several long seconds before it dawned on me what I was seeing.
“Look at this,” I said, pointing at the broadsheet. “The Pumas are assigned to play the Tecos in the opening round!” Then we both noticed the details of the first match. Wednesday, May 13 – Z & H’s last night in Mexico. Estadio 3 de Marzo – the Tecos’ stadium located 15 minutes from our apartments in Guadalajara. We looked at each other wide-eyed. Maybe we would attend a soccer match after all!
“I’ll be right back!” I said, throwing my backpack down and sprinting back up the hill to our Lagos apartment to grab all the Pumas gear I had.
We arrived at the stadium an hour before the match was set to begin. Chris had made a solo trip earlier in the day to buy our tickets, and it was a good thing – the cheap seats were already gone, and the remaining seats were few in number due to the flu-induced attendance restrictions. The restrictions were probably good for the Tecos, though – from the looks of it, any more seats sold were likely to go to Pumas fans.
From the moment we arrived it seemed like we were outside Estadio Olimpico Universitario in Mexico City, where we saw the Pumas four glorious times last fall. Groups of Pumas fans were everywhere, peppered by a comparative handful of Tecos fans. Merchant stands lined the east side of the stadium, selling both Tecos and Pumas gear – but, truth be told, Pumas gear outnumbered Tecos gear at this, the Tecos home stadium. I reveled in it all, nothing less than thrilled to get one last taste of the Pumas passion I’d soaked up since the first soccer matches we attended last August.
But all this Puma power only further riled up the Tecos’ newest fan. Earlier in the day Zach bought a jersey at the Guadalajara market. We had to look in multiple stands to find one. We asked one merchant if she had any Tecos jerseys, and she looked at us incredulously. “Tecos?!” she asked again, as if we were crazy. Then she laughed at us. (We did end up finding one. Eventually.)
Jersey firmly in hand, Zach decided to invent a new cheer for his team. Channeling his inner owl (the Tecos’ mascot), Zach began…hooting. As only an owl can. Soon he added flapping wings to his hooting calls and then of course with all this owlish fury I couldn’t help but bring out a puma snarl and vicious paw swipe and soon there were two gringos acting like wild animals challenging each other on the sidewalk of one of the busiest streets in Guadalajara. Will this continue long after the game is over? Yes, yes it will.
Joining in the fandom (though at a slightly higher level of adulthood) Hannah bought a Tecos headband and Chris draped our Pumas scarf around her neck, and the four of us headed into the stadium. Seeing that we would be required to wear cubrebocas (surgical masks) because of flu fears, Zach and I bought special cubrebocas emblazoned with the logos of the Tecos and Pumas and the words “Eres mi cura” – “You are my cure.” Oh, Mexico. All week we’ve seen blue surgical masks on bronze statues and even giant ones on cars, and now die-hard futbol fans are declaring their teams to be their personal “cure” for the flu. Laughing in the face of death and disease – este es Mexico.
But the flu prevention did not stop with cubrebocas. Security guards squirted antibacterial gel on our hands, and then doctors in white lab coats pointed what looked like radar guns at our necks and took our temperatures. When this flu scare recedes, Mexico is going to be the healthiest place in the world. (Or maybe just the least germy place - antibacterial gel is everywhere.)
Safely sanitized, we made our way to our seats. Chris and I looked at each other in amazement: After Estadio Azteca, Estadio Olimpico Universitario, and Estadio Jalisco, three of the biggest stadiums in Mexico (and three of the biggest soccer-specific stadiums in North America), Estadio 3 de Marzo seemed really small. And yet this was the best of all possible situations, for we could see our beloved Pumas up close. Though we had attended four UNAM games in Mexico City and one in Guadalajara before today, we had never, ever been this close to the Pumas. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had seats this good since the 6th-row Cubs-Brewers seats Adam and I accidentally acquired a year ago this month.
The first half of the match was a thrill to watch. For the first time I realized just how much the Pumas’ 15-year-veteran goalkeeper Bernal absolutely runs the team from the goalie box, pointing and shouting commands and directing the top-ranked defense in the entire league. The Pumas weren’t scoring any goals, but they looked like a team that came to this match battle-ready to win. As did their fans.
At mediotiempo, the score was still tied 0-0. But now, of course, it was time for the halftime show. The Tecos, it turns out, have the greatest halftime show in the league. Like most Mexican soccer halftime shows, it consists of an obstacle course, but this particular obstacle course featured lucha libre fighters in the middle of it! To get through the course, the contestants had to either fight the two luchadores – usually getting flipped into the air or slammed into the mat – or try to avoid them, a tactic which was usually followed by the luchadores chasing them down the field. After all of this the contestant had to try and kick a soccer ball into the net – and more than once this turned out like Charlie Brown trying to kick Lucy’s football. As the Tecos’ giant owl mascot walked off the field with the luchadores, we all concluded that it was one of the best halftime shows we’d seen.
But now it was back to the game. As the second half began with yet another Pumas ¡GOYA! cheer, Zach shook his head. “Just wait,” he tells us. “When the sun goes down, the OWLS come out!” And somehow, someway, as the sun disappeared behind the stadium lights and the crazy man next to me hooted like an owl, the Tecos’ newest fan would be proved right.
Within minutes of the start of the second half the Tecos scored a golazo. As we stared at the goal in disbelief, we realized the Pumas’ veteran star was missing, a young substitute keeper in his place. For a few minutes the Pumas tried to rally, but suddenly Palencia, the best Pumas player on the field, was pulled out of the match, and, now missing their four best players (national team call-up Leandro and top-scorer Cacho were already out with injury) the blue-and-gold seemed to wilt. Late in the second half the Tecos were awarded a penalty kick and went up 2-0 and then, without warning, it was all over. The sun had gone down. The Owls had come out!
We poured out of the stadium, picked up a few more pieces of Tecos and Pumas gear to take home with us, and then found a place to wait for the bus. Suddenly we heard drums. And not just any drums…familiar drums…the drums of the UNAM…and sure enough, it was the Pumas supporter club, marching out of the stadium, drumming and chanting loudly and enthusiastically and seemingly having the time of the their lives. I remembered a match we attended in the fall in which the Pumas lost brutally, but after the game the fans marched out of the stadium with the full band, as passionate in their support after the loss as they were before the game. This is what I love about the Pumas, I thought. This is what I love about soccer.
The Puma fans paraded out into the four-lane street, filling it and marching on, drums pounding, out into the night. A few minutes later our bus came by and we filed on, riding home for an after-party on the porch, neighbors for one more night, our fantastic week dotted with the exclamation point of a soccer night.
And somewhere in the distance, an owl is still hooting…