My friend Simon is a writer for the Seattle PI and usually posts recaps of Sounders matches. This past weekend, he traveled to San Diego and then Tijuana to watch Club Tijuana take on Club America. English born and bred, his knowledge of soccer (football, futbol) is extensive and he includes a lot of history and humor in his pieces. In this one specifically, he writes about what happens when your well thought out plans go awry in a foreign country! Hope you enjoy reading about his trip to Mexico as much as I did!
The border between the US and Mexico at San Ysidro has become one of the more interesting boundaries in modern geopolitics. In many ways, it is one of the most contradictory. Culturally and economically, the border has almost become irrelevant with the globalization of the world economy, a minor hindrance to the morning commute, no more noteworthy than traffic on the West Seattle Bridge. Almost fifty thousand people cross this border daily to get to work or school. And yet, politically, since 9/11, and more particularly, since the onset of the Mexican drug war in 2006, the border is more significant than it has perhaps ever been. With drugs and undocumented workers flowing across the border in one direction, and cartel-bound weapons flowing in the other, this has now become the most heavily guarded ‘peaceful’ border in the world, not to mention one of the hottest topics in US politics.
Somewhere among this amazing melting pot of issues, lies Club Tijuana, one of the top soccer clubs in Mexico. In many ways, the culture and workings of this club mirror those of the society that surrounds it. Culturally, many have referred to the area around the US-Mexico border as being an entity all of its own, being so distinctly a mix of the two cultures. The writer Ed Vulliamy refers to it as ‘Amexica’, “a country in its own right, which belongs to both the United States and Mexico, yet neither.” Andro Linklater refers to it more specifically, “[The US-Mexico border] cuts across the metropolitan area of San-Diego Tijuana, home to around four million inhabitants, most of whom live in the same combination of concrete high-rises and rancho-style villas, choose between the same fast-food chains offering burgers or frijoles, and work for the same borderland economy offering transport, warehousing, and financial services. The division of this part of North America into Mexico and the United States seems artificial compared to its obvious unity.” Andro Linklater, The Fabric of America, 2007
Club Tijuana very much follows this trend. It is estimated that around 30% of the fans who attend matches at the club’s 27,000 capacity Estadio Caliente cross the border in order to do so. The experience at Estadio Caliente nicely represents the mixed culture of Amexica. The supporters section bears all the hallmarks of the Latin American style of supporting, based on non-stop singing, flags, and use of musical instruments. Outside the stadium, however, the fans began their night out with that most American of traditions – the car park tailgate. The club themselves recognize and embrace their Amexican culture, regularly using the phrase ‘team without borders’ in their marketing, and in 2012, opened an official team store in the Plaza Bonita mall in San Diego, the first such store for a Liga MX club in the US. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer is quoted as saying “We are not two separate cities, San Diego/Tijuana; we are one region, and the Xolos (pronounced Cholos) are the team of the region.” Given that lack of success for the city’s two main sports franchises, the NFL’s Chargers and MLB’s Padres, the fast success of the Xolos makes a welcome change. While it would be wrong to overstate the importance of the Xolos in the sporting fabric of Southern California, it does nevertheless represent an impressive and unusual presence for a team that is located in a different country.
On the field, too, the team reflects the culture of the area. The club has been well represented by American players in its short history, with the USMNT regulars Greg Garza and Joe Corona being among those who have worn the red Tijuana jerseys. Currently, there are three American players (Michael Orozco, Alejandro Guido and Esteban Rodriguez) represented on the team roster. The club actively scouts for players in California and elsewhere in the US. This approach has been hugely successful for the club.
Of course, it is difficult to talk about the political and social fabric of Tijuana, and the US-Mexico border in general, without discussing the drug trade. Tijuana, unsurprisingly, is one of the main routes for illegal drugs entering the US from Mexico. The Tijuana drug trade was controlled throughout the 1990s by the Arellano-Felix cartel, also known as the Tijuana cartel, led by two brothers, Ramon and Benjamin Arellano-Felix. At the group’s height, they were making an estimated revenue of $7bn per year, smuggling drugs over the border by road, by boat, or by using a network of tunnels that led from Tijuana to US territory. However, the influence of the group deteriorated in the early 2000s, with increased post-9/11 border security hindering the cartel’s business. Roman Arellano-Felix was killed by police in 2002, and Benjamin was arrested in the same year. With the decline of the brothers, former ally Joaquin ‘Chapo’ Guzman and his Sinaloa cartel attempted to take over the Tijuana routes, but met with fierce resistance from the Tijuana cartel. War raged for half a decade, before easing off after 2008. The area has been relatively peaceful since 2010, with many speculating that the Sinaloa cartel, already spread thin due to wars with Los Zetas and the Juarez cartel, may have made an agreement with the Tijuana cartel to prevent further violence.
Like many businesses in the border region, Club Tijuana have not entirely escaped the stigma of the drug trade. It has been speculated that Club Tijuana chairman, Jorge Hank Rhon, may have ties to the Tijuana cartel. His company, Grupo Caliente, is Mexico’s largest sports gambling company, and it has been widely alleged that his company is involved in money laundering for the cartel. In 2011, Mexican police seized 88 weapons from his home, of which two were linked to homicides by ballistic evidence, but the charges against him were dropped due to the search having taken place without a warrant. In fact, no formal charges have ever been leveled against him for any crime. Still, he remains a controversial character. He was mayor of Tijuana between 2004 and 2007, but his election victory was marred by allegations of malpractice. On July 8, 2009, the American Consul General in Tijuana, Ronald Kramer, wrote a confidential cable to the U.S. Secretary of State (later leaked by Wikileaks) that said “Hank is widely believed to have been a corrupt mayor and to be still involved in narco-trafficking.”
The idea of making the trip to Tijuana for a Liga MX game began to formulate in my brain after a friendly game that the Xolos played in Seattle in March. I had often thought before that it would be a fun (and cheap) trip to make, but the idea of travelling to this notoriously dangerous city by myself was just a little too intimidating. But having read about the hordes of fans that make the trip for every home game, I realized this was a unique soccer experience that I just had to see for myself. After all, I can’t imagine that there is anywhere else in the world that fans would put so much into travelling to a home game, across an international boundary, negotiating probably the busiest border crossing in the world. In any other walk of life, this would probably seem like absolute insanity. But soccer has always commanded this amazing passion in people like nothing else, and this is really just another example of the lengths that people will go to in order to follow the team they love.
So it was that I flew into San Diego on Friday morning, ready to head down to Tijuana for their game against Club America, of Mexico City, that evening. I had been very fortunate to get a ticket for this game – Club America are extremely well represented wherever they play, and tickets for this game sold out within only a few hours of going on sale. (Interestingly, the single game tickets only went on sale four days before the game, which I found astounding, but is apparently pretty standard in Mexico). I had decided that the safest way to make this trip would be to go as part of a group, so had gotten in touch with a group of Xolos supporters, and one of them had agreed to take me down with him. I headed out to a bar in Ocean Beach to meet him, and……… he never showed. I called the number on the group’s Facebook page, and the guy I spoke to didn’t even know who in the group had been emailing me. He was already south of the border, but he told me that if I could get to Old Town Transit Center, then I could get a trolley to the border, go across as a pedestrian, and then get a taxi to the stadium on the other side. He would then give me a ride home after the game. This left me in a dilemma. I had promised myself (not to mention my wife and son) that I wouldn’t take the risk of being in Tijuana by myself. After all, kidnappings are a big part of the crime landscape in Tijuana, and a 6’4” white man wandering the streets by himself could hardly be any more of a target if he tried. Plus, I had absolutely no idea how to get from Ocean Beach to Old Town, and the San Diego transit website was a disaster on mobile. I seriously considered heading back to my hotel and finding a rock show or something to do instead.
I sat at the bus stop thinking about this, and lo and behold, a bus rolled up with ‘Old Town’ on the front. I took it as a sign from God and jumped on. From there, it was on to the Blue Line, heading south to San Ysidro, a trip that took 40 minutes or so. Then it was a short walk to the border crossing. Crossing the border as a pedestrian was pretty strange. As you enter the building, the line divides into two – one for Mexicans, and one for non-Mexicans. For the non-Mexicans, you wait in line to get your passport checked and to get your tourist pass. For the Mexicans, though, you just walk straight on through! It struck me as really odd, that this was a border that is so hotly monitored in one direction, but so lax in the other. I get the logic, but still – it was strange.
Anyway, from there, it was past the machine gun-laden guards, and on to the big challenge of the day – figuring out which taxi driver to get to take me to the stadium. This, clearly, was a big decision. Is that one a kidnapper? Does that one look like he might have a gun in his glove box? In the end, I went with a guy who was wearing a Xolos shirt – another sign from God? Because, you know, soccer fans apparently can’t be criminals too (*cough* *Pablo Escobar* *cough*). As it turned out, the guy was great, and the only crimes he committed during the course of our journey were against the Mexican Highway Code (and those violations were numerous). We had a very enlightening conversation on the way to the stadium, as he seemed to assume that I was going to a strip club (or worse) during the course of my visit, and was genuinely confused when I told him that I was purely there for the game, even after I had told him I was married. This was made all the more strange by the fact that I then had an almost identical conversation with the taxi driver on the way back to the border after the game. Tijuana – it’s an interesting town, folks. Anyway, I gave him an obscenely generous tip to thank him for not kidnapping me at gunpoint, and headed for the stadium.
“But wait!” I hear you say. “Weren’t you supposed to be getting a ride home after the game with the San Diego guy?” Well yes, I was. Except that I got to the stadium and tried to call him, and found out the hard way that my cellphone isn’t set to make calls outside the United States. So I then set about figuring out how I was going to get back to San Diego after the game. I met a couple of American fans walking around the stadium, but as I was explaining my predicament to them, I found that my story sounded so unlikely that even I was starting to feel like it was a lie by the end of it (I just need a ride! I don’t have any cocaine, honest!”). In the end, I gave up and decided that I was going to brave the public transit route on the way home too.
Having decided that, I headed into the stadium and had a walk around the concourse. This was, in itself, an experience. It was very similar to the Soccer Celebration event that they have in the North End before Sounders games, with stalls to visit and games to play, except that here it went the entire way around the stadium. They were all advertising something. And every single one was manned by scantily clad girls. The girls are incredibly, let’s say, proactive in getting your attention, and seem to be genuinely offended if you don’t want to have your picture taken with them. Once again, Tijuana – interesting town.
Having walked around the concourse, oooh, maybe 15-20 times, it was time to head to my seat. The stewards there were most excellent – not only do they show you to your seat, but they wipe it down with a towel before you sit down! Oh, and did I mention that they bring you beer? We need to get that system put into place here, amiright? Anyway, I discovered that I had managed to get myself a REALLY good seat. The supporters section at Estadio Caliente is separated from the rest of the stadium by a fence, and my seat was literally right on the other side of that fence. The supporters section stayed empty until about 10 minutes before the game, and then there came the rumble of noise as the group piled into the section, accompanied by drums, shakers, trumpets, and probably a few other instruments too.
The game promised to be a good one. For Club Tijuana, this was pretty close to being a must-win game, being four points outside the playoff zone (with a lot of teams in between) with only five games remaining in the Apertura season. Historically, Tijuana have tended to be strong at home but poor on the road – perhaps not surprisingly, given that their nearest Liga MX opponent is over a thousand miles away. In this campaign, however, they had struggled mightily at home, with only one win in five games, while conversely having pulled off three impressive away wins against Santos Laguna, Morelia and Cruz Azul. Club America, meanwhile, were safely nestled in fourth place, but had lost three of their previous five games coming into this one, including a heavy beatdown at the hands of Leon, and a particularly galling Super Clasico defeat to Chivas at the Azteca. There is no doubt that America are a high-powered team going forward, but the team still faced some questions at the other end of the field. Of course, getting to see Club America was of particular interest to me as a Sounders fan, given that there is a good chance we will be facing Las Águilas in the quarter-finals of the CONCACAF Champions League in the new year.
In the event, the game was fairly one-sided. America took the lead on Michael Arroyo’s long range golazo in the 15th minute, and doubled it before half time with some really nice passing play, finished off by Mexican World Cup star Oribe Peralta. Tijuana huffed and puffed, but never really looked like getting back into it, and the “Ole” chants had started from the Club America fans long before the game finished. The atmosphere at the game, though, was excellent all the way through. The Xolos supporters section sang and jumped and waved their flags for the entire game, and their enthusiasm never wavered. Although Club America’s fans had their own section at the other end of the stadium, their fans were littered all over the place throughout the stadium, and although there was regular banter between the rival fans, it was all good-natured and done with smiles on faces. A lot of people will have you believe that Mexican fans are hostile and violent, and this may well be true in some places, but this is the second stadium I have been to in Mexico and on both occasions, I have seen fans that just want to support their team and have a good time. It’s an atmosphere that I really enjoy.
I did leave the game a few minutes early, which I would never normally do, but I wanted to make sure I got away from the stadium quickly, and this was freaking Tijuana so don’t judge. Fortunately, I found another excellent taxi driver who got me to the border at high speed, and I braced myself for the long wait. After all, it’s always a long wait there – right? Well, actually, no. Turns out that by arriving there at 10pm, as I was, I was in the ‘sweet-spot’ for making that crossing. If you get there at 8pm, it’s packed with all the sane people who know that being outside in Tijuana after dark is best avoided. If you get there at midnight, it’s packed with people who are coming back after enjoying the depraved Tijuana nightlife. But at 10pm? Nothing. I walked straight up to the desk, and was on US soil in five minutes flat. I was really surprised by how civilized it all was. I was expecting men with guns, sniffer dogs, and a full-body inspection to make sure I wasn’t bringing anything back that I shouldn’t be. In the event, I had my visitor card stamped, and that was about it – I don’t think the guy even checked my Green Card.
All in all, despite the travel challenges and my healthy level of paranoia, this was a really great trip. As with my previous trip to Mexico, to see the Sounders play in Monterrey against UANL Tigres in 2013, I found myself leaving the country feeling a certain level of embarrassment about how much fear I had felt being in a world that so many people live in every day of their lives. Once again, nobody that I met in Mexico was anything less than friendly and welcoming. A trip to Estadio Caliente is really a great and unique soccer experience. Terrific stadium, friendly welcome, and passionate fans. The name ‘Tijuana’ conjurs up so many negative images in so many people these days, and it’s probably not surprising given what this city has gone through in recent times, but this was definitely one of the best trips that I have ever made, and I am so glad that I decided to go.