Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Report From A Mexico City Derby

Runnin’ With The Rebels

By Andrew MacDonald
March 22, 2009

Few stadiums in the world generate the type of historical recognition associated with that of Estadio Azteca, the National stadium of México’s Tricolor and home of Club América in México City. Having hosted two World Cups as well as Maradona’s infamous “Mano de Díos”, this day’s match-up at Azteca also had the potential to be memorable- a México City derby between América and UNAM Pumas. Some strongly argue that this rivalry is as heated, yet less commercialized, than the SuperClásico between América and Guadalajara’s Chivas club. The intensity surrounding the América-Pumas derby can be best traced to their three-game battle for the league trophy in 1985.

The ’85 Final will be remembered for a couple of ominous reasons- the death of eight Pumas fans, asphyxiated in one of the tunnels preceding the second game at Pumas’ CU stadium, as well as alleged match-fixing in favor of América by the referee in the third and deciding match. Played before 50,000 fans in the neutral venue of Querétaro, a city three hours North of México City, the third game controversy surrounds a questionable handball penalty call against Pumas, and the subsequent non-call for an even more obvious handball penalty committed minutes later by América. Some argue that, with Pumas having had the away-goal advantage in the first two matches, there should’ve never even been a third game. Such is the basis for the beginning of a storied rivalry.

As the accordion of Los Tigres Del Norte blasted from the speakers of the car, everybody except the driver was already starting to drink. Nearing the stadium on Avenida Tlalpan, the intensity of the match became visually apparent. On both sides of the street were heavily armed riot police, spaced about ten feet apart, starting about three or four blocks from the stadium. Still well over two hours until match time, we arrived at the stadium and parked on the Westside, Pumas turf for the afternoon. People were milling around with their drinks under the scorching heat of the sun. Every once in a while the police passed by, timed in such a way that one had ample time to hide their drinks. It seemed rather obvious, but apparently subtlety is the key. This also goes for the women walking around the parking lot with weighted-down backpacks, selling alcohol to those who hadn’t come prepared. Adding to the ambiance of the afternoon was a police helicopter that continuously circled overhead in the distance, doing surveillance on Pumas’ largest and rowdiest supporter’s group, “La Rebel”. Per tradition, every game that Pumas plays at Azteca, La Rebel marches all morning long from their home stadium a few miles away.

About an hour before the game, we entered Azteca. Passing through multiple police checkpoints it seemed as if nothing was beyond confiscation. Forget cameras, not even belts were allowed in the stadium. At this point all the primary upper level entrances on the South Side of the stadium had already filled to the roof with Pumas fanáticos. It looked like we’d be sitting well off to the side near the corner of the pitch, on the periphery of the supporter’s section, or porra. I watched in awe at the incredible mass of supporters a few sections down, wishing I could be where the energy was most passionate. Then, as if somebody had read my mind, we started making our way to the middle of the mayhem. It was about as respectful as one could expect when you’re climbing over people in an already-packed section of terrace seating. In what seemed to be an arbitrary decision, the 6 or so of us squeezed our way into an area for perhaps two people. The idea seemed problematic, until I realized that one row of seating wasn’t really just one row of seating- there would be fans standing on the terrace, as well as on the cement benches; some were even balancing on the short back-rests, steadying themselves on the shoulders of fans in front of them.

As the stands filled and the match got closer, the singing commenced as weed smoke permeated the air. Blue and gold flags were being waved intensely as smoke bombs sporadically reigned down onto the crowd in the lower level of the stadium. This would continue for the duration of the match. Along the balcony railing of the upper deck in front of our section was a ten-foot tall fence with barbwire on top. In front of the fence were riot police lined shoulder-to-shoulder. The police helicopter circled above the stadium. There were even cops whose sole purpose was that of trying to see where projectiles were coming from. The singing and drum playing slowly intensified, timed so that by the moment the Pumas team entered the field it had reached a deafening level. The supporter’s section was upwards of 20,000 people, filling the whole upper deck of Azteca behind the goal.

On the opposite side of the stadium facing La Rebel, sat Club América’s supporter’s, most notably “La Monumental”. Their porra consisted of parts of both the upper and lower levels, but their numbers still easily paled in comparison to those of La Rebel. Even though Pumas traditionally underperforms on the pitch, La Rebel rivals in size that of all other porra in the Western Hemisphere. Some call it the “Argentinization” of Mexico’s die-hard fans, an obvious nod to the well-established “barras” of Buenos Aires.

This truth is not lost on the average soccer fan in México- like it or not, La Rebel has definitely created an almost-mythic reputation for themselves. I would bear witness to a perfect example of where such a reputation comes from near the end of the game- the uprooting and tossing of one of the stadiums metal handrails in the upper deck of the stadium. From about twenty rows or so rows up, it gained speed as it tumbled end-over-end down the walkway, clearing a crowd of startled Puma supporter’s and riot police before it crashed into the fence at rapid velocity. Thankfully no fans were hurt. However absurd the reason for the fence had previously seemed to me, this act helped clear up any misunderstanding about its necessity.

Aside from the spectacular ambiance of the crowd, the game itself was chippy and defensive, ending in a scoreless tie. It appeared that the rivalry between the two clubs had caused a match mentality of not wanting to lose as opposed to wanting to win. As the game came to an end, a scuffle ensued right next to me as two guys, presumably friends, started throwing punches. The bigger of the two got in quite the shot on the smaller guy just to my right. As he was spitting blood, cries of team unity echoed all around in order to diffuse the situation. As the majority of the crowd filtered its way to the exits, both La Rebel and La Monumental continued to sing and chant. Every time La Monumental showed its strength, they were sarcastically mocked with clapping and cheers. This went on back and forth for another twenty minutes before the both sides seemed to accept what was accepted on the pitch- that there would be no decisive victory today.

Exiting the stadium I noticed that the bathroom floors were flooded and people were using the sinks as urinals. When I turned around to see where the rest of the crew was, I noticed the youngest guy from our group urinating against the wall of the concourse. Further down the walkway, a small contingent of La Rebel (including another guy from the group) broke through the police line in order to get in on some running skirmishes with América supporters in the parking lot. The majority of Pumas’ fans were corralled out, funnel-style, from the stadium by a solid wall of the riot police. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder all the way around the entire stadium, official numbers listed their presence at around 5,000 officers.

Once back in the parking lot, it was clear that some of La Rebel weren’t ready to call it a day. I sat back in my post-game haze and watched as a handful of young guys attempted to start fights with your average América fan heading home. After a few failed attempts a young guy in an América jersey strolled by, walking arm-in-arm with his girlfriend. Sadly, they proceeded to rip the jersey off him as something of a post-match souvenir. Much to my dismay, the young guy who both pissed all over the wall as well as stole the jersey, was chosen to be the one to drive us home.

Definitely not sober, but apparently more sober than everybody else, it was one of those moments where you know the best choice would be to walk home. So, I buckled the seatbelt and held my breath. After instigating some confrontations with other autos on the road that only one with a small-man’s complex could be proud of, I finally made it home. Next time I’m taking the bus, tough guy.

Andrew MacDonald is a freelance photographer, social justice activist, and futbol aficionado from Minneapolis living in México DF. To correspond or see photo work:
Web: Photographs


Blogger Evan said...

Great reporting!

3:00 PM  
Blogger Matt Keadle said...

This is great. As a Pumas fan living in Jalisco, I can definitely attest the passion of La Rebel and the atmosphere of Azteca. Thanks for your writing, it was like being there!

6:29 PM  
Blogger peteo said...

Very good write-up. How you can take notes the entire day, or even remember the details after all the going-ons, I don't know. :D

3:01 AM  

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