It’s a soccer rivalry like no other. USA v Mexico. History layered on bunches of grudge. It tumbles across the soccer plain every four years during World Cup qualifying. There is a landfill of trash talk, desperation to win.
Gringos at the Gate is a new documentary that takes us inside the clash. Pull apart the stitches that bind the countries together and you’ll find split loyalties. Mexican Americans wrestle with the desire to support the country of their birth and the powerful forces of loyalty demanded by the idea of Mexico, land of their forefathers. For Mexico has been on the other side – el otro lado – of America’s economic success. Add this to a list of grievances. Much of its land was gobbled up by America’s frontier expansionism. US troops marched on Mexico City during the Mexican-American War. American corporations stare at Mexico as a supply zone for cheap labor. Yet Mexico is a country confident in its own skin. It refuses to bow to the gringo and soccer has become the proxy for exercising the national muscle.
For decades, Mexico dominated the North American soccer region. But by the turn of the century US soccer had made massive strides and caught up. Mexico was stunned by the US during the 2002 World Cup Finals, defeated 2-0 in the Round of 16 by a rampant American team led by Claudio Reyna and the young Landon Donovan. Mexico’s Rafa Marquez’s red card assault on Cobi Jones late in the game cemented the frustration of a nation that had imagined itself forever dominant over its nemesis. A soccer arms race began. Could US wealth buy soccer success, the game of the affluent suburb finally bearing fruit, ready to defeat the Mexican street?
The struggle continues. Mexico has recovered from its shock and now leads the US in quality, unleashing a new generation of young talent on the world’s game. And with the teams almost certain to meet in World Cup qualifying next year, the US will be motivated to prove that it can catch, match and pass Mexico.
Gringos at the Gate opens the Kicking and Screening Soccer Film Festival in New York City on June 27. The Festival is now in its fourth year. For soccer fans, this festival is not to be missed. It stands out as a unique, hugely entertaining and informative. The post-screening talks in the Tribeca Cinema bar bring together folks from all aspects of the game including the films’ directors. ESPN’s Alexi Lalas is a regular attendee. This year he is joined by author Jimmy Burns, author of La Roja: How Soccer Conquered Spain and How Spanish Soccer Conquered the World. Look out for a soccer trivia night sponsored by the folks behind the new soccer magazine, The Howler.
The screenings roll across the wide pitch of soccer cultures. This year’s films include a look at one of the most febrile rivalries in world soccer, the sectarian divide of Scotland’s Celtic and Rangers. Look for a feature on Thierry Henry, former French international and New York Red Bulls star. Movies from Spain, Germany and Israel bring a global perspective. Kicking and Screening – great stuff.
Alan Black is the soccer columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle