Sellout Crowd To Watch U.S., Mexico Play Soccer

The U.S. and Mexico have a long rivalry on the soccer field. They take the field again Tuesday in a game that holds political, cultural and competitive importance. It's a World Cup qualifier.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Today brings a new chapter in one of sport's greatest rivalries. It is the United States versus Mexico, and the sport is men's soccer. The game will be played in Mexico's enormous Azteca Stadium before a sellout crowd of 100,000 fans. The U.S. has never won a competitive game on Mexican soil, and our southern neighbor's national team is hoping it stays that way. NPR's Carrie Kahn will be in the stands tonight, and she sent us this preview.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: I'm standing on the field at Azteca Stadium and it is huge and intimidating. On a big game day, it can easily fill up with more than 100,000 people. Tickets ran out on Sunday, so the U.S. team will be attempting its first-ever official win here before a sold-out crowd. Before yesterday's practice, Maurice Edu, midfielder for the U.S. team, said as a kid he would watch the rivals on TV and he's thrilled to get to be a part of history and take on Mexico.

MAURICE EDU: Whenever you put on your country's colors you take a lot of pride, and it's an honor. It's a great honor to represent your country. But playing against your biggest rival, you know, it's that much more important.

KAHN: Today's game is important for both teams, battling for a spot in next year's World Cup on Brazil. History, though, is on Mexico's side. It's only lost one World Cup qualifying game at home since 1949. And Mexico has beat the U.S. 13 out of the last 14 match-ups - one game ending in a tie. Mike Woitalla of Soccer America magazine says the rivalry isn't really that lopsided anymore. The USA usually Mexico when the games are played on U.S. soil.

MIKE WOITALLA: Well, now it's even more interesting because you've got Mexican-American players playing for the United States. And I think that's very appealing to the more than 30 million Mexican-Americans in the United States. I think that's getting a lot of them to become U.S. soccer fans.

KAHN: There are three Mexican-Americans on the U.S. team ready to play tonight. Joe Benny Corona is a U.S. midfielder. He was born in L.A. but lived much of his childhood in Tijuana, Mexico.

JOE BENNY CORONA: I grew up following the Mexican league and all that and the Mexican national team.

KAHN: He could actually play on El Salvador's national team if he wanted to. His mother is Salvadoran, but he's glad he chose the U.S. team. He says he does have to endure snide comments though from Mexican friends. What kind of things do they say to you?

CORONA: They're just like, oh, I hope you do a good job in your game but I hope you lose.

KAHN: For the 400 U.S. fans who've come to Mexico to see the game, it's definitely an experience to remember.

COREY VEZINA: All the people in Mexico are great to us. They're really nice, friendly, cool, and then you got into the stadium and it's war for 90 minutes.

KAHN: Corey Vezina should know. This is his third trip to Azteca Stadium to watch the U.S. play. He says Mexican fans throw everything they can at the U.S. supporters - beer, soda, sandwiches - anything, he says, that's not bolted down.

VEZINA: It's the most intense fan experience any American can have. It's just such a bitter rivalry that should be on every, you know, American's bucket list as far as sporting events goes...

KAHN: From Mexican team fan Alfredo Vargas, on his lunch break at a nearby mall, the rivalry between the two teams is wrapped up in politics.

ALFREDO VARGAS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: He says we treat the American fans badly because they don't treat Mexican immigrants in the U.S. very well. But he says, politics aside, once everyone is on the field may the best team win, and he's sure that will be Mexico. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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