Mexico City (Part 3): The Bright Lights of Estadio Azteca

Mexico City (Part 3): The Bright Lights of Estadio Azteca

It was a gray, misty, humid Saturday in the capital city, a city that had just dodged a catastrophic bullet in the form of an 8.1 earthquake two nights earlier. As the adrenaline comedowns rolled off citizen shoulders, life slowly began to move forward. Fútbol was the perfect path back to normality.

Club América were all set to host Veracruz in a Liga MX affair at the iconic Estadio Azteca. After the therapeutic nostalgia of my self guided stadium tour the day prior, this fixture, my first ever match at the Azteca, had me buzzing from the moment I awoke that morning in the Colonia Roma.

I arrived at the stadium about three hours before the scheduled 9 PM kickoff. The place was already alive and loud, an intense atmosphere building outside the ground for this showdown with Los Tiburones Rojos, not exactly one of the marquee match-ups of the league season.

With the vibe of sheer relief around the entire city, and with the recent international break taking what felt like ages to conclude, I feel like América fans would have shown up in droves to watch Las Aguilas play a pub team on this night. People were hungry, the club’s players and coaches most certainly included, anxious to get back beneath the bright lights of Estadio Azteca.

Beisbol y Empanadas

There was actually a solid contingent of Veracruz supporters milling about inside the gates (lots of families in red and white jerseys). There was also a massive promotional display for Major League Baseball, complete with a batting cage, a ground ball practice set up, and a pitching contest. MLB is already in full advertising mode for next season’s Mexico City Series between the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers.

Bryce Harper, the new face of Estadio Azteca?

The party was in full effect, as fans began filing in to enjoy the pre-game festivities.

In addition to the baseball, the Club América set-up adjacent to the main stadium entrance gate featured live music, at least ten quality food trucks, a massive projector screen showing the Pachuca – Chivas match, and two large beer tents. It was a pretty damn hip scene, if I may say so myself.

I made my way to the Empanaderia, the chain of empanada carts that I had discovered the prior night in the Condesa. (Un de tocino y queso, y un de espinaca, con una botella de Coca Cola por 50 pesos. Brilliant.)

As the in house band got the crowd going with a roaring rendition of the Oribe Peralta “7 Nation Army” remix, nightfall beckoned and a slight rain began to drop from the darkening sky. It was time to head inside.

Up the Maze. Overlooking the tiny little Ants. 

While stadium renovations have seen the capacity drop to around 87,000 (it was well over 100,000 for the first four decades of its existence), the original shape and design of the Azteca is still exactly the same. You can prepare and imagine all you want. There is nothing that can match that feeling of conquering the multi-leveled, concrete maze that is the route to the open air press area, poking your head out near the steepest, highest points of the modern monstrosity, and just staring down.

It takes a moment for your eyes to adjust. The ants down below slowly morph into fans and professional footballers as you attain your Azteca vision.

Eyes steadily adjust to the distance of the rafters and the pitch, human adaptation at its finest.

That classic glow of the Azteca at night…

As kickoff fast approached, the stadium was less than half full. What was impressive was the noise being made by 30,000 or so people, the full enclosure of the ginormous stadium adding an intense echo to every scream, whistle, and song. I can only hope to soon experience the place at its fullest, during an important Mexico game or a Liga MX Championship match. But the collective sound of the América fans, and even the few hundred Veracruz supporters up in the top corner, was enough to send a few chills down my spine.

As the match kicked off, I noticed a couple of young lads in shirts and ties sitting next to me, doing their own commentary into an iPad. I was inspired. I pulled out my phone, popped open the voice memo function, and proceeded to do some mock radio play by play, and momentarily fulfill my #LigaMXeng dreams.

The timing of this was superb.

In the 6th minute of the match, 29 year-old Argentine forward Silvio Romero, much maligned early on in this Apertura campaign, scored a sensational opener for Las Aguilas, a virtuoso dribbling effort inside the eighteen that saw him beat three Veracruz defenders before placing a shot high past Veracruz goalkeeper Edgar Hernandez. Bedlam ensued, as I let out a passionate “gol” call. (A handful of journalists a few rows down from me turned back and watched me screaming into my phone, and proceeded to smile, chuckle, and give enthusiastic thumbs up signals before turning their attention back to the pitch. I laughed, and slightly cringed at the thought of how that exchange would have gone in a sporting press box in the United States. There’s certainly no suppressing of passion in Mexico City, and every writer was more than able to get their work done, even with all the noise. It’s quite the interesting juxtaposition, when you look at this as a cultural comparison. I digress.)

 

The rest of the match was highly entertaining, Romero netting a brace and coming agonizingly close to a hat-trick before the night was over.

 

Darwin Quintero was a joy to watch in person, effortlessly gliding around the wide open greens of the Azteca, the Colombian showing why he is considered one of the most skilled players in Liga MX.

Diego Lainez, the 17 year-old sensation for Las Aguilas was another treat to see in his truest element. He’s got a two digit number this season, and he doesn’t want to be called a kid anymore. The young man is something special, and definitely a bright star for the future of Mexican soccer.

It was great seeing some familiar faces from Tijuana in the form of América midfielder Guido Rodriguez and Manager Miguel “El Piojo” Herrera, both of whom made their way to the Azteca this summer after plying their trade in Baja California for the prior seasons. They’ll both be making their returns to Estadio Caliente this Friday night, as Xolos host América in a mouthwatering clash between two of the top three sides in the league table.

Todo el Respeto. More Nostalgia.

I asked Herrera in his press conference if he had any words for the people of Tijuana, and what he expected his reception to be on his return to the home of his most recent former employer.

(Translated): “It’s all respect,” Herrera said. “I expect a nice reception, and plenty of hugs and handshakes with Jorge Alberto Hank and the rest of the staff at Xolos. But after that, it’s game time. It’s not about me. It’s about the soccer being played. We need three points.”

At the conclusion of the presser, I spent some serious history-nerd time in Tunnel 8, where a heavy portion of relics and homages to the stadium’s past are displayed. You could feel the footballing ghosts hovering about.

The Belly of the Beast: Pitchside at the Azteca

This was the belly of the beast. This was the feeling former players talked about, walking out onto that field and feeling like a giant, mythical, high altitude animal just swallowed you whole and is forcing you to play well enough to be spit back out with your body still in tact. This was the Azteca I came to see. Marvelous. Humbling.

Just Can’t Get Enough: Rum & Cokes with Red Sharks

I said some goodbyes to the wonderful journalist and broadcast friends that I’d made on the night.

I walked one more time through Tunnel 8, around 12:30 AM local time, said a few more words to Maradona and Pele, got back to the press entrance gate and called for an Uber.

Just then, a group of about a dozen Veracruz supporters, young, well-groomed 20 some’s, a mix of men and women, came walking out the same exit.

“What are you doing here alone,” one of the women asked.

“I’m a writer,” I answered. “I’m just heading back to the Roma.”

“No you’re not,” said another woman in the group. “You’re coming to the Coyoacán.”

“It’s after-party time, my friend,” said a man in a Veracruz shirt. “It’s time to go. Get in.”

What was I supposed to do here? These folks (who were all from Veracruz and had attended various universities in CDMX) loved 80’s music and Bacardi rum. At a fabulous, artistic locale on the outskirts of one of Mexico City’s most interesting neighborhoods, the sounds of Depeche Mode and Wham blended with the present-day Latino pop-charts on a thumping stereo system.

“This is how you do it, Nate” said the host. “Now you gotta show us a good time when we come to San Diego.”

I looked at my watch. It was 5 AM. Pumas vs. Xolos was due to start at Estadio Olimpico Universitario in seven hours. It was time to head back to the Roma and catch a few winks.

This life, after all, does require just a wee bit of rest.

(Stay tuned to SoccerNation.com, powered by soccerloco, for Part 4 of our special Mexico City series, as Nate heads to UNAM to soak in all that another one of Mexico City’s historic grounds has to offer, and see Club Tijuana in action away from home against Pumas.)

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