The 2014 World Cup will likely be the most-watched event in history. All eyes will be on Brazil, but this tournament doesn't belong just to "the Land of the Palms." It's for all of us. With this in mind, Aaron Gordon is sending dispatches to Sports on Earth from all around the world this month, as he sees how each country makes the World Cup its own.
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MEXICO CITY -- When people discuss the origins of basketball, baseball or football, they sometimes speak of them as inventions. This suggests that, at some point, a person or group sat down and thought about what kind of game they might like to play, much as one designs a new watch or computer. This is not true of soccer, however.
There's a slight possibility soccer comes from Mexico. Those who study such things trace an ancient ceremony involving a rubber ball all the way back to 1500 BC, according to Soccer in Sun and Shadow. In that time, they generally propelled the ball using their hips and forearms, which sounds really awkward and difficult and actually would be a foul in today's soccer. Also, the Aztecs may have sacrificed the winners to their gods, which seems like a very poor incentive structure.
Still, evolution takes time. With living things, it takes tens of thousands of years if not millions. For games, it's more like decades or centuries. It's impossible to know if word of the rubber-ball game spread from Central America back to Europe, or if the English came about the game on their own. Either way, by the late 19th Century, rubber-ball games had yielded soccer.
It was hard not to think about soccer's possible Central American ancestry while watching the Mexico-Cameroon match, because I was standing with approximately 15,000 people at Zócalo, a large square in el Centro Historico. This is, more or less, the land on top of the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. It is within the realm of possibility that this public viewing of a World Cup game is on top of the land where the game's most distant ancestor originated.
The night prior, Zócalo was gated off and guarded by police. The giant viewing screens and speakers were already in place, so it was easy to imagine thousands of screaming fans occupying the square. Still empty for the moment, the square had an eeriness to it. One of the police officers told me the square could accommodate about 20,000 people, but he didn't think that many would show up for the first match. He expected larger turnouts, as the games got more important. Was there any possibility of a riot? "No, they won't riot. If we win, everyone will go to the Angel," he said, referring to one of Mexico City's major landmarks about a half hour walk away. "If we lose, everyone will go home."
The next day, I arrived about 40 minutes before kickoff. There were already a few thousand people, but more were arriving constantly, from all directions. Several TV crews were present, including FOX Sports and ESPN. The TV crews formed bubbles of fanaticism: No matter where the cameras went, they found enthusiastic, vocal fans, but once they walked away, everyone calmed down. A few mini-pitches had been set up to the sides of the square, where pickup games had commenced. Considering several of the kids playing were wearing Vans and skinny jeans, they demonstrated some nifty ball skills.
By kickoff, the square was approximately two-thirds full, about 15,000 people according to the officer's estimates. Some fans had decked themselves in extravagant costumes, colored wigs or painted faces, but most were wearing either a jersey or normal street clothes. Everyone appeared to be restrained by their anxiety. I wandered the square the entire match and didn't see one beer.
Mexico outplayed Cameroon the entire game but had two goals disallowed, one of which was clearly a bad call. A fan behind me released a smoke bomb before realizing that the player had been ruled offsides, then turned to his friend and exclaimed that he should have brought more than one. Otherwise, the fans seemed to take unfavorable calls in stride, insulting the referee with some fleeting curses but maintaining an optimistic disposition. At the half, many fans left the square to seek shade, as the midday sun made it feel much warmer than 79 degrees. Others manufactured their own shade with the free newspapers, shirts, towels or Mexican flags.
Despite a few Cameroonian chances, Mexico always looked the more likely to score, which came to pass in the 61st minute. There were some nervous moments, including a late diving save off a header, but Cameroon ultimately was lucky not to lose by two or three.
An hour later, a few thousand fans were at the Angel. The police had been ready, speeding down el Paseo de la Reforma, downtown Mexico City's main drag, as we made our way. As the fans chanted and sang their way down the street, I couldn't help but recall my last visit to Mexico City, when I accompanied the American Outlaws for a World Cup qualifier. Many of the chants were the same, including "I believe that we will win," "Yes We Can" and the call-and-response of "Give me an M!" (to spell out "Mexico"). Likewise, the march through the city reminded me of the Seattle Sounders March to the Match (although that one is only a few blocks).
The Angel is a 148-foot statue in the middle of a multi-lane traffic circle. Normally, this circle is a complex maze of cars and pedestrians, with traffic police whistling incessantly and magically waving their hands in every direction at once. One imagines that, on a typical Friday afternoon, there usually would be plenty of traffic. Instead, two blocks had been closed, so the broad avenue could become the after-party's epicenter.
They danced, they sang, they waved their flags and threw white confetti into the air. They celebrated in virtually every way imaginable. Couples kissed, and everyone put their arms around one another. People came out of the nearby office buildings to join, or at the very least to get a picture or two. Children were hoisted onto shoulders so they could see, like the Thanksgiving Day Parade without the parade. One middle-aged man sat on the pavement and bounced up and down to everyone's joy. When he got tired -- or realized it hurt to bounce on pavement -- he began to spasm with every limb. I was relieved when he got up, although with all the emergency personnel around, it would have been as good of a place as any to have a seizure.
A soccer ball materialized and repeatedly was kicked as high as the angel, then gathered and kicked again, this party's version of a beach ball in a crowd. When the ball would go behind the police barricade guarding the Angel, the police gave it back.
The fans celebrated not just because they won, but because they looked good doing it. Mexico's qualification had been a nightmare, barely making the cut after cycling through managers. Now, not only had Mexico played well, but it might have been the best they'd played in years. After Croatia's fairly weak showing against Brazil, they have good reason to be optimistic.
During the celebration, cleaning crews mingled within the crowd, picking up trash and sweeping up as soon as any refuse hit the ground. With a few hours, the street re-opened. The city returned to the early morning's dignified energy. Normal police presence resumed, as did gridlocked traffic. Everything was back to the way it was with precision, similar to the way a teenager re-aligns the furniture after a rager before the parents get home. It was executed to perfection, as if this city had been doing it forever.