The great Azteca, although few photos will do it justice. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

MEXICO CITY — Every time I visit the stadium, I just don’t know if it will be my last.

Outside of the United States, I probably have been Estadio Azteca more times than any other stadium on this planet and every time I am in awe of the place.

I ventured to the stadium for a Bruce Arena press conference Saturday and still was in awe of the Azteca.

I will journey there Sunday for the seventh time to watch the United States and Mexico tussle for three World Cup qualifying points.

As for it being my last time, well, with CONCACAF possibly changing the World Cup qualifying process and quite possibly riding itself of the hexagonal, there might not be any more meetings between the two regional powers and rivals.

The very first time (1986)

After matches in Puebla and Estadio Olympico (Mexico City), I finally got an opportunity to go to the big stadium. I could not believe how huge it was for the Round of 16 game between England and Paraguay (June 18, 1986). Regardless of the result, my mission was to interview a pair of former Cosmos players — J.C. Romero and Roberto Cabanas. Soccer America was using Reuters for game stories at the time and a unique feature with a U.S. angle would have been different.

Three intriguing footnotes:

* Because the U.S. did not qualify for Mexico ’86, I was perhaps a handful of American writers — I believe there was about a dozen or so of us — who covered Mexico ’86. And we were all over the place because we did not have a home team to cover.

* I covered the final two weeks of the competition for Soccer America. My press credential said Berling Communications. I don’t know why it did not have the name of the publication. Everyone who looked at my credential thought I was from Germany — ie. Berlin Communications.

* Souvenir stands at Mexico ’86 were very basic. In fact, they were not stands, but on blankets in the parking lot outside of the stadiums. There, you could buy official and unofficial pins of the World Cup. And then there was this soccer ball with all of the flags of the 24 nations. Besides the pins, I fell in love with the ball, so I bought one. I get on the media bus that would take us back to the hotel and a pair of Italian journalists are looking at me, pointing at me and conversing in Italian. I thought they were making fun of the stupid American journalist who had to buy a souvenir soccer ball. One of the gentleman then asked me, “Where did you get the ball.” I pointed to the blankets yards away from the bus and said, “Over there.” The two journalists left the bus, apparently to buy their souvenir balls.

The Hand of God and the feet of a soccer god (1986)

Now, for some of my readers, this particular tale will sound like it was fiction or from the stone age.

At that time, the World Cup had festival seating, so you sat anywhere. The American contingent wound up sitting on stone slabs. Since it was a day game and we had typewriters, and there was no immediate reason to get a story out; so did not have any desks.

Don’t ask about replay in the stadium because I don’t remember if there was any.

What transpired that day was simply part astonishing, part magical and party great train robbery as Maradona displayed his cunning and his craftiness only minutes apart.

Let’s set the stage on June 22, 1986.

In the quarterfinal, England and Argentina were meeting for the first time since the Falkland Wars in 1982. There were plenty of banners exalting the weaponry of both sides and unfortunately it wasn’t about Maradona or England’s Gary Lineker.

I remember one banner from an Argentine supporter that hailed the Exocet missile, which was used in the war four years prior.

But leave it to one of the greatest players to walk this planet to make certain no one would remember the Falklands in what turned into a 2-1 Argentine triumph.

 

Six minutes into the second half of a scoreless match, the ball was palyed into the penalty area, and English midfielder Steve Hodge and lifted a back pass to goalkeeper Peter Shilton. Maradona and the keeper arrived at the same time and the Argentine knocked the ball into the net with his left hand.

The first thing I thought and said was, “Hand ball!”

I looked toward the linesman closest to the play, waiting for his flag to go up, but it did never. Despite protests by the English, referee Ali Bennaceur of Tunisia points to the center spot.

Maradona later claimed “The Hand of God” scored that goal.

As to make amends, Maradona embarked on an amazing journey four minutes later. He took possession of the ball 10 yards into Argentine territory. He performed a 180-degree turn that left Peter Reid and Peter Beardsley standing in their tracks. He then raced down the right side into English territory past Ray Wilkins. Terry Fenwick tried to pull him down at the top of the penalty area, but Maradona shrugged him off. Shilton came out of the goal, committed himself and fell to the turn out yards out. Terry Butcher tried a last-ditch effort with a sliding tackle under Maradona, who pushed the ball into the unattended net.

Total time: 10 seconds

Number of touches: nine.

Even Maradona’s opponents were astonished by the performance. “Today he scored one of the most brilliant goals you’ll ever see,” England coach Bobby Robson said. “The first goal was dubious, the second goal a miracle. It was a fantastic goal. It’s marvelous for football that every now and then the world produces a player like Maradona. I didn’t like his second goal, but I did admire it.”

So, to see Maradona’s goals after the press conference, you had to go to the Azteca press center, give up your credential to get a tape of the game with a sheet of paper that gave you a minute by minute run down.

We wanted the Hand of God goal a couple of times because there was no doubt it was punched in.

Maradona’s second goal, however, something else and a thing of beauty. We must have watched it a dozen times as I wrote down every move and every player he meandered past. For some reason I had brought a stop watch with me and timed his astonishing run at 9.1 seconds.

The final (1986)

Easily the player of the tournament, Maradona was not much of a factor in the championship game (June 29, 1986)

West Germany (yes, before there was a unified Germany there was an East and West Germany, boys and girls) did well to limit Maradona for most of the match. Still, the Argentines grabbed a 2-0 lead on scores by Jose Luis Brown (22nd minute) and Jorge Valdano (55th minute) before the West Germans equalized with two late goals — by Karl-Heinz Rummenigge (73rd minute) and Thomas Berthold (81st minute). The West Germans, however, might have let those goal celebrations get to them just a wee bit as Maradona found a way to make himself felt. In the 83rd minute, Maradona sent Jorge Burruchaga a through ball and his teammate put it away for a 3-2 advantage.

About seven minutes and stoppage time later, Argentina and Maradona deservedly won their second World Cup in three tries (they also took home the FIFA World Cup trophy in 1978).

Tying one on and earning a point (1997)

For the first time, a U.S. national team properly prepared for the altitude and rarefied air of Mexico City (no way can anyone prep for the smog unless players were allowed to wear gas masks). Head coach Steve Sampson had most of the team train at Big Bear Lake for 16 days prior to the match to acclimate itself with the altitude. The U.S. was confident it could walk out of the stadium with at least a point.

In the 32nd minute minutes on Nov. 2, 1997, the unthinkable occurred as U.S. left back Jeff Agoos was red carded for by a strict referee, Javier (The Sheriff) Castrilli of Argentina, for elbowing defender Pavel Pardo. It was going to be the Christians vs. the Lions, this time in the Americas and not in Rome.

But something happened. Instead of cracking the U.S. players played the game of their lives. Brad Friedel stood on his proverbial head in goal, the backline of Alexi Lalas, Eddie Pope and Marcelo Balboa made key defensive stops as the game remained scoreless.

Midway through the second half, the anxious and frustrated fans started to turn on their alleged heroes.

As the game wore on, the U.S.’s performance started to sway the heavily partisan crowd. It began with boos and whistles at halftime for the heavily favored Mexicans and it continued midway through the second half as the crowd sarcastically chanted “Ole!” every time the Americans knocked the ball around to take some time off the clock.

The crowd also changed, “Fuera Bora!” as in fire Bora Milutinovic, the coach of the 1994 U.S. World Cup team, who was then directing El Tri.

The match ended nil-nil and the powers that be in the Mexican Football Federation listened to the masses and soon gave Bora the axe, even though he had guided the team into France ’98 (he wound up coaching Nigeria in that World Cup).

A week later, the U.S. booked a spot in France with an emphatic 3-0 victory over Canada in Burnaby, British Columbia.

A botched offside call and a loss (2001)

In the unforgiving world of World Cup qualifying, one bad decision can mean the smallest difference between life and death.

The United States learned that the hard way July 1, 2001 in its lifeless 1-0 loss to Mexico, which gave its archrivals a much-needed lease on life at Estadio Azteca on July 1, 2001.

A botched offside trap allowed the Mexicans to score — “a foolish goal and a poor decision,” according to coach Bruce Arena. The Americans went on to play one of the worst halves of his three-year regime and never recovered.

Perhaps Agoos said it best. “We were the most dangerous Mexican player,” he said. “I don’t think we deserved to win. We were our own worst enemy.”

The Mexicans (2-3-1, seven points), mired in fifth place in the six-team group, desperately needed a victory in any way, shape or form to keep their precarious qualifying hopes alive. One newspaper called the match, “Victoria o muerte” – “Victory or death.”

The great Azteca

Michael Lewis 发布于 2017年6月11日

 

Joe-Max Moore fouled Alberto Garcia Aspe 35 yards out on the right side. Aspe’s free kick found Jared Borgetti as he U.S. backline tried to move forward on an offside trap. But not every player moved at the same time. Borgetti was left alone to head a 12-yard bullet from the penalty spot past goalkeeper Kasey Keller into the right corner.

“We conceded a foolish goal,” Arena said. “Really, a poor decision by our backline to try to pull up with the crowd noise. Communication wasn’t there. Really, a poor effort on our part.”

So, El Tri survived to play another day and eventually in another World Cup.

U.S. Soccer officials were upset that Aguirre continually went outside the coaching box to yell instructions to his players and talk to the referee. On one occasion, Aguirre cursed at Earnie Stewart. That was conduct unbecoming a coach at any level, let alone in qualifiers. U.S. Soccer had considered filing a protest. Coaches are allowed to stand and give instructions in the box, which, incidentally, appeared much larger than regulations allow.

A rare Azteca lead, but another defeat (2009)

Not a pleasant experience for many American.

Certainly not for the U.S. team, which grabbed a 1-0 lead on a Charlie Davies goal but it was not meant to be.

The United States came close, so tantalizing close to pulling off a surprise and making some history in the cauldron called Estadio Azteca on Wednesday afternoon.

Only eight minutes away from escaping Azteca with a rare tie and a precious point and putting Mexico’s World Cup hopes into further disarray, the Americans allowed a shot at history to slip away on Aug. 12, 2009.

Second-half substitute Miguel Sabah connected from 10 yards out in the 82nd minute to snap a 1-1 tie and boost the Mexicans to a 2-1 victory.

The struggling Mexicans (3-3-0, 9) were faced with a do-for-die situation to keep their qualifying quest alive and desperately needed to win. The Americans (3-2-1, 10), who have never won here in 24 attempts (0-23-1), could afford to lose, especially with a Sept. 5 qualifying date with El Salvador in Sandy, Utah.

“It’s a tough loss to have,” U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. “So many guys worked so hard and we give up a late goal. The feeling inside is one of great disappointment. The idea that now you still can walk away with a point and everybody gives everything they had.”

The U.S. found its rhythm at the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa in June, upsetting soon-to-be world champions Spain in the semifinals and stunning five-time World Cup titlists Brazil behind a 2-0 halftime advantage before reality reset itself. Still, the U.S. was confident things would be different at the Azteca this time.

Well, wait til four years, with apologies to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The Mexicans jammed U.S. journalists into this one small area in that we were sitting on top of one another.

The mixed zone was a joke. Whatever sadist decided to create the mix zone the way it turned out had to be a sadist. There must have been at least 20 feet across for the players to walk through, while the media again was jammed into an extremely narrow area in which you might be able to put two or three people from the barriers that separated the players from the press.

After the game, many journalists had trouble getting on the WIFI and front office workers from MLS managed to help us send out stories back to our respective newspapers and websites. Thank heavens the game was in the afternoon.

Later on, two U.S. journalists got sick from eating some food and wound up staying a few extra days because they were in no condition to fly (no it wasn’t me).

Today’s World Cup qualifier (June 11, 2017)

What will this year’s game bring?

You’re guess is as good as mine.

All I know it likely will be an experience I will never forget about.

And I’ll probably be in awe of the stadium again as well. Even after 31 years, that could be difficult to shake.