That was the dismayed, slightly disbelieving, question posed by a fan of a Mexico team last night to the North Carolinian worker at the food stand getting him a beer and hot dog. We were at the Carolina Panthers stadium (actually named, of course, after a large financial institution, the Bank of America), and it was clear that the phenomenon of tens of thousands of people needed to go to the bathroom and buy food during a sharply circumscribed fifteen-minute period was strange and overwhelming to a system set up for U.S. football. Indeed, those working at the stadium exuded a mix of caution and politeness, swept up as they were into a jovial but unfamiliar world: that of a CONCACAF Gold Cup match.
It was the first time the Gold Cup came to North Carolina, to a stadium in the middle of downtown Charlotte. I didn’t really know what to expect. The line-up was promising: El Salvador vs. Costa Rica, followed by Mexico vs. Cuba. I assumed there would be a good crowd for the second fixture, but wasn’t quite sure. Cruising into Charlotte, though, cars were decorated with signs and painted shouting: “Mexico!,” and by the time we pulled into a parking spot we’d seen Salvadorean, Costa Rican, and even a few Cuban flags and jerseys. For those who hadn’t come prepared, all were on sale, along with plenty of carnitas and horchata, in a plaza near the stadium. The scene took me back to the World Cup — when the first game I went to was Mexico vs. Argentina — except that, to my chagrin, there were no vuvuzelas, though there were smattering off other approved noise-making devices. (My tiny umbrella, meanwhile, posed a slight security problem, though the guard let me take it in, but told me to shove it in my pocket and made me promise not to open it during the game — wise counsel for sure.) Later, a couple perhaps unused to the panopticon that is the U.S. sports stadium were spied by a guard, watching from above, as they consumed small bottles of tequila they had smuggled in: they were quietly told they had to go, and sheepishly left the stands, abandoning their sad half-drunk bottles on the ground behind.
Our area of the stadium encapsulated the general topography: it was dominated by Mexico fans. To our right three quiet and intense long-haired fellows with brightly painted faces stared ahead, while further to our left a boy with an impeccable fan’s hairdo — the hair on the side of his head shaved close, tinted green, and decorated with a stylized eagle wing. But there was also a loud pastle of Ticos rooting for Costa Rica, and a smattering of Salvadorean fans, and then little groups of suburban North Carolinians, clearly pleased to be in the know and in the midst, for an evening, of international football. The encounter between the different football worlds was at it’s best when blond eight-year-old boys and girls from a local youth team carried out the flags onto the pitch — Salvadorean, Costa Rican, Mexican, and Cuban.
As the first game began, I tried to figure out who the Mexico fans were rooting for. Ricardo La Volpe, the coach of the Costa Rican team, was clearly a source of great emotion — mostly negative. Whenever he appeared on the screen — in his faded jeans, looking like a sort of aging hippie — there was a cascade of boos and whistles. And there was wild cheering when Salvador scored early on. But when, in the final minutes of the game, Costa Rica scored to equalize, there was plenty of cheering too. Really, it seemed like many people didn’t care that much either way: the only unanimity came when, during slow moments of the game, everyone began chanting “Mexico! Mexico!,” as in, “ok, guys, time to make way for the big boys.”
And Mexico certainly stormed the pitch last night: by the time I left, it was 4-0 against Cuba, who had mounted a valiant effort at first but frittered to pieces in the second half, clearly outmatched and outclassed. The goals came so fast that it was slightly exhausting cheering for them, as softdrinks and hats flew into the air. Feeling bad for the beleagured Cuban team, we snuck into to the quiet night at the 70th minute — by the time we got to our car the score was 5-0 — passing vendors still hawking Chicharito gear, wondering if the stadium employee who had been chided for their ignorance of soccer might pick up a discounted Mexico jersey on the way home.