Even though I was born and raised in Mexico, where fútbol is religion, I have never been to a soccer game.
And yet, every four years I try to make up for it and get the chance to prove my Mexicanidad — my Mexicanness — during the World Cup. When it comes to watching a sport, I am never more invested, anxious, or excited than when Mexico’s national team, known as El Tri, plays in the World Cup, currently being held in Qatar.
I recognize the inherent hypocrisy, not just because I may come across as a fake soccer fan but also given the long list of controversies surrounding Qatar. There are the persistent allegations of corruption regarding how FIFA, the governing body of soccer, awarded this year’s tournament to the small Arab country more than 10 years ago, as well as serious concerns about human rights abuses, including Qatar’s horrific treatment of migrant workers. Many celebrities boycotted the tournament, refusing to attend or perform. Yet despite increasing pressure and several attempts, particularly by Germany and Denmark, no national team declined to participate in the fútbol extravaganza.
But soccer, especially the World Cup, has a way of inducing temporary amnesia about ethical dilemmas while summoning outsized nationalism. Are fans helping sportswash Qatar’s alleged human-rights violations and corruption? As anyone familiar with FIFA’s checkered history knows, it wouldn’t be the first time. Since the quadrennial tournament started about a week ago, geopolitics seems to have taken a backseat. Instead, the prevailing narrative about the tournament is about Argentina’s Lionel Messi, the sport’s international superstar who has never won the World Cup. This is presumably his last chance at it and, given his stature as a dominating player, everyone is rooting for him. That includes American fans, especially now with rumors that Messi, who plays in Europe, is in negotiations to join Inter Miami, the David Beckham-owned MLS team.
In terms of fandom, no one beats the Mexicans. Sure, Japanese fans have been giving the world a lesson in manners and sportsmanship by staying after games to pick up trash at stadiums, a gesture that has been spreading among other fans. But Mexicans go all out every four years. In Mexico, games are shown in school auditoriums and public spaces, and thousands of Mexican fans save money for years to afford World Cup trips. It’s been estimated that between 50,000 and 90,000 Mexican fans are in Qatar rooting for El Tri, dressed in all kinds of traditional Mexican garb. They’ve gone viral on social media because of their passion and (sometimes embarrassing) antics.
But despite its hardcore fan base, El Tri has never been more than a mediocre force in the World Cup. In two matches, Mexico has scored zero goals. After a 2-0 loss to Argentina on Saturday, El Tri is in last place in its four-team group and will need to win with enough goals on Wednesday against Saudi Arabia (a team that pulled an incredible upset when it beat Messi’s Argentina 2-0) — or be eliminated. In the last seven consecutive World Cups, Mexico has advanced out of the group stage only to be eliminated in the knockout round, or the fourth game played in the tournament. It’s why a common chant among Mexico fans this time around has been: “Queremos quinto partido,” or we want a fifth match.
It’s like a curse, something Boston sports fans understand very well. In reality, El Tri’s subpar performance also reflects a corrupt system in Mexico of wealthy team owners who have a lot of power and control over the players and who goes to the national team.
Yet none of that seems to matter to the average Mexican fan, myself included. It can be a lonely experience here in Boston, where watching the World Cup and rooting for Mexico isn’t the same as in other American cities with a larger population of Mexican immigrants. What I do know is that Mexican soccer fandom is among the best and craziest of any sport, any country. (I may or may not have bought a Mexican team jersey for my dog with his name on it and a tricolor wig for me to wear during games four years ago.) Others have tried to explain the phenomenon. One of my favorites is Ben Simmons’s terrific coverage of a 2009 World Cup qualifying match against the United States. “Take all the sports we care about here, mix that passion together, condense it into one mega-sport, and you’d have soccer in Mexico,” Simmons wrote then.
Being a Mexico fútbol fan represents national pride at its finest, one that transcends common rationality. And then some: If you want to find the true meaning of hope, talk to a Mexican soccer fan right now. They’ll say we will beat the Saudis 4-0. Because we will, somehow.