Heart Of Football

Mexicans quick to teach the Yanks a thing or two - on the field

The United States of America 1, Mexico 2. Only, perhaps, in sport, can a mere football game become so timely a riposte to such an earth-shattering political event as Donald J. Trump winning the vote to be the next US President.

Mexico Trumps USA was the gift headline.

Small it may be. A pyrrhic victory, many will say. But ya gotta love the fact that it took Mexico less than three days to cross the border and beat Team USA in their own backyard on Friday night.

It doesn't happen very often. Americans have been able to mock Mexicans for decades over the apparent Indian sign the US men's team had kept Mexico under in World Cup qualification.

But on Friday in Columbus, Ohio - 2,000km from where the Trump wall may or may not be built - the Mexicans outscored and largely outplayed the Americans, albeit scoring the winning goal in the last minute.

The game is the first of 10 for each country in the final elimination round of the North and Central American region. Three of the six nations will qualify directly for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. A fourth will play off against the fifth -placed Asian side.

But maybe even Mr Trump had to notice that, while the streets of cities were occupied by consecutive nights of protest, Americans were losing at the global game to their neighbours from the south.

So the odds of both the US and Mexico making it are pretty likely, although Jurgen Klinsmann's Americans have a tough second contest, away to Costa Rica on Tuesday.

As one commentator observed, under Klinsmann the US lean more heavily towards German than Hispanic origins these days. Four members of the team on Friday were born in Germany, and just one was of Latino heritage.

That might surprise, even shock you because Hispanics number almost a fifth of the US population. And because two of the United States' finest players - Claudio Reyna and Tab Ramos - have figured large in the coaching development of their adopted homeland.

This, surely, is the strength of America. Its people are the greatest sum of immigration the world has known, and in soccer, the game that America has been playing catch-up to for generations, both the love of football and the debt to it must at least in part be Latino.

I have seen Ramos coach. He came from Uruguay but has been the US Under-20 coach since 2011 and, while his brief is to prepare players for the senior team run by Klinsmann, he could not if he tried hide his intrinsic love for playing with the ball, rather than physically competing against the man on the ball.

It is the dichotomy that even Brazilians, with their huge history, somehow confuse themselves over. Right now, under a new coach Tite, Brazil are turning back (thank goodness) to the inbred skills, the joy, of their own style.

Others for too long thought that to mimic Europe's tough, more systematic ethos, was the way ahead. Carlos Dunga, the last, failed, Brazil national coach had two spells putting his countrymen into a straight jacket to try to make them play like Germans.

And not even the modern Germans who, after their own deep study, eschewed the old predictable reliance on systems in favour of a more flowing game that emphasises accurate passing and movement off the ball.

How could they do otherwise with the sons of immigrants, Mesut Ozil, Skhodran Mustafi, Ilkay Gundogan, Mario Gomez in their ranks?

German-born, certainly Germany schooled, these are enlightened players through their backgrounds. And Germany, to their credit, realised that to play as well, or better than, Spain and Brazil, they had to adapt and use every available talent, regardless of origin.

I don't imagine that soccer is anywhere close to the thoughts of President-elect Trump in this busy time. We don't know if his rhetoric in keeping them out by way of a physical wall will materialise.

But maybe even he had to notice that, while the streets of cities were occupied by consecutive nights of protest, Americans were losing at the global game to their neighbours from the south.

The US is, or was, contemplating another bid to host a World Cup, in 2026, after hosting the 1994 edition successfully. That is on hold while the US Soccer Federation figures out whether the new President might remotely endorse the soon-to-be former President Barack Obama's inherent understanding of football.

Friday's game in Ohio came too soon after the election for most American players to offer anything other than tacit acknowledgement to the politics.

"Given the way everything has gone the last few months," the US captain Michael Bradley said, "there's an added layer to this game. But my general feeling is that we, as Americans, trust our system. We respect democracy and regardless of your beliefs and regardless of how you've voted, we have an obligation to come together, get behind our new President and have faith and trust that he will do what's best for the entire country."

That sidestepped the rhetoric of Mr Trump aimed specifically at Mexicans.

Mexico's skipper Rafael Marquez could not and would not sound so diplomatically disengaged. "Maybe now is a bad time," he said, "a time of intolerance.

"But with this win we can forget a little bit about what happened here in the United States."

Marquez, now 37, is so long in the tooth, and so travelled, that he knew exactly how his words would be interpreted. He has been playing this game longer than Christian Pusilic, the new Wunderkind of Borussia Dortmund and debutant of Team USA, has lived.

Klinsmann's plan on Friday was built around giving Pusilic freedom of expression. Just turned 18, born in Pennsylvania where his grandfather settled from Croatia, he is clearly going places.

Marquez has had a 20-year career from Atlas in Mexico to Monaco, Barcelona, New York Red Bulls, France, Greece and back to Atlas. His glancing header in the 89th minute broke the deadlock in Columbus.

On the opposite side, but also 37, US goalie Tim Howard insisted before a ball was kicked: "Mexico are going to try and kick our asses and we're going to try and kick theirs. It's got nothing to do with politics."

Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes it is more than just a game.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 13, 2016, with the headline 'Mexicans quick to teach the Yanks a thing or two - on the field'. Print Edition | Subscribe