It was hot, it was sunny, it was game day in Mexico City. I, dressed in my Canada jersey and scarf, walked la Reforma as the morning commuters were overtaking the downtown. Busses and cars piled up alongside the sidewalk as I took in the city during a typical work day.
Easter was over and those who had flooded the beaches for holiday had returned to the city. Among the masses of commuters my red and white outfit received little attention. Aside from the odd glance, the Mexican commuters went about their systematic commute, ignoring some foolish Canadian who decided to strut about the city in the opposing team's colours.
Venturing to the city center I had a local snap some pictures of me outside the Angel of Independence. Before walking off the old man predicted a 2-1 Mexico win for the night's encounter; I shook my finger in front of him trying to convey that it was anyone's game.
On my way back to the hotel I picked up one of the many newspapers with front page coverage of the game. Inside pages covered the Mexican squad with little reference to the Canadians, a starting 11 segment stated Jonathan, not Julian DeGuzman would be starting for the Canadian side. Despite the lack of fact checking the coverage was impressive both in the press and on TV.
Returning to the hotel the soccer show "Futbol Picante" had begun their coverage showing pundits with their opinions on the recent press conferences. A small box in the top right of the screen showcased time until kick off - eight hours and forty-five minutes. It was amazing to think a Canada/Mexico pregame was getting the same analysis and airtime as the Superbowl would back home. I thought of how Canadian soccer still fights for prime airtime, whether it be international matches or MLS and NASL coverage.
I returned from lunch in time to meet the group, we were scheduled to leave the hotel at 2:45 to head to a watering hole within short distance of the stadium. The streets were bogged down with Mexican commuters but we made it to the bar with little fuss, the marjoity of us napping on the hour long ride to the venue.
Reenergized after our meals we all began to catch pregame fever. Provincial flags were handed out before boarding the bus with some of the locals approaching us for photos. As we boarded the bus songs began to ring out, with the sing a-long ending as the bus hit traffic on the way to the stadium. Looking out the window I could see the Azteca, on the streetcars ahead and behind us waved Mexican flags outside of their car windows as street vendors sold knock off merchandise on the sidewalk.
The Voyageurs, an ever proud group, leaned out of our seats to let the Mexicans know we would be in attendance. Flags and scarves were held up to the windows to those we passed, most caught off guard that there were even away fans present for the game. Holding up fingers on their hands, both parties predicted scorelines; not who would win, but if Canada would score.
As we reached the fence on the border of the stadium grounds we disembarked the bus only to be greeted by a small team of riot police. They stood emotionless in their black padding with their riot shields casting shadows in the now setting sun. We could tell that they were taking us seriously, not that we were sure why.
Walking through the towering black gates of the away entrance we were greeted by another open gate, only this one was guarded by Mexican police on foot, on horseback, and with guard dogs. A giant "Policia" banner was being pinned up by three guards on top of an army van. Again, I wasn't sure why the police needed a banner to identify themselves - I thought the armoured vehicles and guns did a good job of that.
Making our way past the first set of guards we began to gain a lot of attention. Mexican fans and families who were making their way to the stadium were suddenly interrupted by a small hoard of red singing songs of Canada. Before we could reach the ticket gates we gathered outside with our flags and scarves raised to show the Mexican fans we had arrived and we were going to make them take notice. As we sang towards the growing crowd of Mexicans media gathered to attempt interviews in broken English.
A few media cameras and selfies later we had made it inside the grounds where we were greeted with more riot police. This group added on to the few policeman and security who were already walking along side us; it was their role to guide us to our seats and keep us separated from the Mexican fans.
Walking up the long concrete ramp to our section we had a beautiful view of the city. Glancing out over the tree line tiny scattered lights illuminated the houses in the distance. In the background the black mountains created a silhouette against the navy blue sky. A police guard shone his light in my eyes encouraging me to keep moving.
As we reached the upper bowl more guards were on duty creating a wall between us and our Mexican rivals. We had our own washroom, our own concession and own section - and they didn't mess around. Despite the spectacular stadium view it was the immense amount of riot police that caught my eyes first.
Standing in the second row and lined up to the back wall of the stadium were was must have been at least 30 guards creating a "U" formation. The tops of the "U" reaching the back wall of the section. Beyond that were empty sections on either side of us where more guards stood, closer to the Mexican fans sitting in other sections.
As we looked past the sky blue caps of security we saw the immense stadium in a different light. As we had travelled to the ground an hour early Mexican fans were still strolling in. Empty chairs showed the sponsorship mapped out by the stadium seats as the green, red and white of the jerseys slowly became more apparent.
When kickoff neared boos rained down on the Canadian warm up as we continued to receive selfies from the Mexican fans below. They didn't seem put off by the barbed wire fence and police standing between us.
Then, it was kick off. For all the talk of Canada unable to get a result in Mexico, no away fan likes to hear that. I had come to support and at the very least expected exciting play and a tactical feast. Canada started with confidence, and while there were always going to be more chances in favour of the Mexicans, it was from my perspective that none of the players were losing their heads.
As Mexico began to dictate play Canada's midfield continued to shift left and right in front of the defense, looking to frustrate. Then when they had won the ball back simple passes to the defense were used to get into formation and build play slowly from the back. It was clear not just for this game, but all others, that Floro preferred to play with possession based attacks - the more time Canada had the ball, the less time Mexico had to score.
But as it normally does in soccer, skill prevailed. Quick touches and movement around the slower Canadian players got the ball in behind the defense and had Doniel Henry on the wrong side of a penalty call. Even from our bird's eye view we could see Borjan nearly got a hand to the spot kick, but it was 1-0 Mexico with a mountain to climb.
The rest of the first half continued as expected. Mexico were clearly the better side, but I was happy with Canada's play without possession. They were clearly frustrating the Mexican's and the fans began to show their displeasure, whistling at the men in green as lulls in the play occurred.
It was hard to tell how the second goal affected Canada's play. Perhaps never again will I see a referee blow his whistle immediately after the ball was put in the net, but perhaps never again will I see such a skillful goal. Jesus Corona, as smooth as you like seemed to spin around the Canadian defenders and without missing a step hammered the ball hard and low just inside the far post.
Canada played with less life in the second half, but in fairness that could've been the altitude. Mexico continued to press unable to find the back of the net in the second half and without a second half score, the little Pea entered the match. If the Azteca was a cathedral, Chicharito was their priest. As he rose from the bench so did the fans as they paid their respects with a thunderous applause. The stadium was as loud as it ever was when he jogged onto the pitch.
it was around the 75th minute when Mexican fans began to exit, unhappy with the play. But as the Mexican fans reduced their cheers to whistles and whistles to silence we continued to be heard. All game the Voyaguers exhausted their song list, even getting employees of the Canadian embassy to join in behind us.
When the final whistle sounded boos echoed around the stadium. For Mexico, a two nothing win at home and guaranteed entry to the hex. I look forward to the day where Canadian fans will have the luxury of booing our players despite winning but not playing well. It was when we saluted the players when they walked over to acknowledge us that we were quickly forced out of the stadium.
Despite being told by security that we would remain in our seats until an hour after the final whistle we found ourselves being closed in by the riot police. They began to move up each step placing their shields together to create a wall that was closing us out of the section. A thrown beer rained down on us, we didn't stick around to see if there would be more.
Led down the ramp by the police, more plastic cups of beer continued to be lobbed in our direction as we exited the stadium - the Mexican fans held back by the police until we had left first. As we reached ground level the Voyageurs and those from the embassy were surrounded by the riot police as the embassy employees boarded their busses. The stadium security had made the assumption that we had all travelled on the same busses that the embassy was boarding, while in fact our bus was located elsewhere waiting for the hour to be up before trying to drive through the crowds.
In a swift turn of events the circle that the police had surrounded us in opened up as we were ushered past the busses, waving goodbye to our fellow Canadians as we were led forward. Quickly we realized we were getting onto another vehicle, an armoured Mexican police van. We boarded onto one of the three separate entrances, the red and blue lights of neighboring police vehicles illuminating the outside of the bus.
The van looked to hold about fifty policemen, or soccer fans, with both seating and standing room. The grey plastic seats divided the bus into three sections with seating around the interior while metal bars were fastened to the ceiling for those standing to hold on to. With everyone on board the vehicle lurched forward.
Looking through the wired windows of the vehicle, we passed Mexican fans leaving the premises en masse. Out on the street police guarded our path as the stadium fell out of view. Once we were on the main roads and clear of the crowds the bus began to pick up speed beyond the speeding limits of the city. It was then we realized we weren't just riding in a police van - we were at the tail end of a police cavalcade. As I looked ahead I could see police on motorbikes flanking the oversized van as police cars trailed behind, the embassy busses had the same security treatment ahead of us.
I leaned forward to get a better view of the outside situation. The door we had boarded on in the middle of the bus was being held open by one of the four policemen on board. For the entirety of the ride he stood at the doorway ensuring nobody had any ideas to lean out, or for anything to be thrown in. As I looked out I could see the cars that we were overtaking as they cleared out of our lane, the motorbikes passing them on the opposite side.
The once long trip to the stadium was made far shorter thanks to the police escort as we pulled up to our hotel. As everyone disembarked a rousing cheer of "Muchos gracias Policia!" was sung on the doorsteps of our hotel, some Voyageurs giving their scarves to the driver and security.
We were all still in shock. The range of emotions and scenes that had taken place over the last four hours had been overwhelming as we all tried to comprehend if the sequence of events. Trevor, the representative from the Supporters Section, made quick work of ensuring everyone was aware of their early morning flights the next day - the party resumed quickly after.
A number of Voyageurs began handing out their remaining beers as we all toasted and embraced our final night in the city. As we all said our goodbyes and thank yous we committed to staying in touch. As one of the Voyageurs said that night, we were all his family now, and I like to believe that we all agreed.
Discussions of the game and upcoming matches against Honduras and El Salvador continued into the night before noise complaints from the hotel began to ring down. We capped the night off with the song "Summer of 86", a modified version of Bryan Adams' "Summer of 69".
We got our first World Cup games, finally got into the mix, Played it down in Mexico, it was the summer of 86. Me and some guys from indoor, we had a team and we tried real hard. Doley quit, and Igor fixed matches. Should've known we'd never get far.
Oh when I look back now, the summer seemed to last forever. And if I had the choice, ya I'd always want to be there.
Those were the best days of my life.
The hotel lobby fell back to the quiet murmurs of the front desk staff as we all ventured up to our rooms, the soft lights of the lobby spilling out into the now dark and quiet street. It was into the early morning when we all committed to our beds, despite the festivities we had flights to catch in the morning. As I drifted off to sleep I thought of Canada qualifying for Russia and more wonderful home and away legs like this.
With Canada being such a vast country it is both a blessing and a curse. While we don't have easily accessible home games, or many soccer discussions beyond a forum, there was joy in seeing and meeting others from all over the country for one common purpose. Of the forty plus Voyaguers who made the trip there were those who had flown in from Vancouver, the prairies, Quebec and Ontario. And while we all had our own ideas and experiences from the national team, it was finally nice to share one with those from all over the country.
Looking ahead to the final games of the group stage I truly hope we make the Hex, and not just for the what it would do for the national team. Another ten games are another ten opportunities for people to get involved with the Voyaguers as the group continues to grow. Home or away we'll be there for Canada as the journey to Russia marches on. I know everyone I met on the trip will still be there to support, and I hope you will too.
Until the next game, Allez Les Rouges.