Into the Lion's Den: A Fan's Account of his First Trip to the Biggest Stage in CONCACAF
Traveling to Estadio Azteca for a critical away World Cup Qualifier presented me with a chance to experience one of the great trips for an American soccer supporter. I had heard the stories of the immense 100,000 seat stadium and all its mighty sorcery: The place buzzes, like the drone of 10,000 bees, and shakes you to your very core. It makes the players’ heads ring so hard, that after 20 minutes of play they can barely hear themselves think – let alone communicate with their outside back.
I can’t imagine playing in such an environment, but taking it in as an active observer was the next best way to dabble in the madness of the Azteca legend.
We arrived at the concrete behemoth after spending the day in the historic center of Mexico City. Reflective of the mountains in the distance, Azteca is enormously tall. A giant of world soccer stadiums, the magnitude of its structure was immediately impressed upon us.
Before the game I absorbed the atmosphere with three close friends of mine who are similarly accomplished global grounds-hoppers. From the knockoff jerseys sold under tents only steps from the entrance, to the lines of riot police along the street, walking around we could feel a particular mood building in the air.
After a long, winding ascent we arrived at our seats in the upper corner of the stadium. Even an hour and a half in advance of the game, the excitement was palpable. A few thousand Mexico fans near the U.S. away section started to chant in our direction with considerable volume.
Our section was surrounded by riot police and fencing topped by barbed wire. A friend noted that the police presence wasn’t necessarily intimidating, though the fact that their riot shields were well scuffed and looked used made us wonder what scuffles they had previously encountered. Vendors offered up the usual beverages to the gathering U.S. fans, but one food option was a bit more obscure: Instant Ramen Noodles. I’ve never seen a more random delicacy at a soccer match, and didn’t miss the opportunity to grab a cup of this (apparently) global dish.
It seemed impossible that the place could ever be truly packed to the brim; but by the middle of the first half it had nearly filled up. After hearing the early supporters make such noise, it was somewhat of a letdown to witness the lack of sustained noise from the crowd during the game.
Following a solid first half by both sides, the Mexico fans seemed to be getting a bit agitated. Various things started flying our way in quite an impolite fashion. Walking out to the concourse to use the restroom could have been a nightmare if the security didn’t do such a solid job of keeping our section only accessible to the 400 U.S. fans present.
As the second half wore on, the tension in the air thickened when it seemed very possible that we could get a draw or even snag a late winner. Mexico fans, aware of the poor start El Tri has had to this qualifying campaign, gradually increased their volume and reached a different decibel level toward the end of regulation time. The crowd’s feverishness reflected the frenetic pace of play on the pitch.
As the final whistle followed a valiant defensive effort from the U.S., things took on another level of insanity in the stands. The stuff – coins, batteries, beer – started raining on us at a much faster rate than any other time in the evening.
After a few minutes of U.S. fans celebrating, security rushed us onto the concourse where shouts of joy (or relief) echoed. We were quickly escorted all the way to our departure of the stadium grounds, with Mexico fans eager to wish us well on our way home.
It would be tough for a game at the Azteca to live up to the hype I’d heard about it beforehand, but even though the concrete of the stands didn’t actually shake, the intensity of the match ending and the riot police escort made this experience incomparable to any other match I’ve ever attended.
- Marc Bahnsen