MEXICO CITY – The man with the tri-colored mohawk took a swig of beer, stuck his fingers down his throat and vomited the mixture back into his cup. In the next seat another man, who was wearing a T-shirt with a cartoon drawing of the decapitated heads of Barack Obama and Landon Donovan, poured out what remained of the Corona beer he had been chugging and urinated into his cardboard drinks container.
Then, according to a neutral bystander who witnessed these disgusting acts, the pair stood on their seats, high-fived and hurled their vile concoctions in the direction of Donovan, the United States men's national team star who was preparing to take a corner kick 15 yards away.
Welcome to the Estadio Azteca, where allegedly projecting bodily fluids at another human being is acceptable in the name of soccer fanaticism. Yet as unsavory as the above scene was, it was not the only or even the worst travesty that took place on Wednesday afternoon.
The Americans were the fall guys in this World Cup qualifier as Mexico once again made the most of what is perhaps the most unfair home advantage in international soccer by securing a 2-1 victory thanks to Miguel Sabah's 81st-minute goal.
Hostile crowds are to be expected in soccer. Acts of hooliganism provide the ugly face of a sport that calls itself the beautiful game. Mexican fans do go further than most national team supporters with boorish behavior that also included drowning out the American national anthem with boos. But even Donovan, who bore the brunt of the hatred of El Tri supporters just as he always does, refused to complain about the conduct of fans like the regurgitating and urinating ignoramuses in the stands.
Instead, it was the actions of referee Roberto Moreno that made sure the lasting memory of this game was not of an intriguing battle between two well-matched teams, but of a contest in which one side was effectively forced to play with its ankles tied together.
Moreno, an official from Panama, delivered the worst refereeing display I've seen in the last decade. Some of his decisions bordered on the farcical, with the Americans drawing four yellow cards to Mexico's one.
"This is an intimidating place for teams to come," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "It makes it a lot harder when the most intimidated person in the stadium is the referee.
"Both teams went in hard [for the ball], but we always came out with the foul."
There have been countless instances where bigger soccer nations have mysteriously benefited from bad decisions when they were struggling to qualify for World Cups. Conspiracy theories are likely to abound again after this result.
USA head coach Bob Bradley and his players knew it was futile to cry foul, but they were forced to sit through a painful flight home knowing they put in a fighting performance that probably deserved a draw. The fact Mexico is allowed to do whatever it likes on its own turf doesn't help.
Already with the advantage of playing at altitude, the Mexicans can schedule games in the afternoon heat of a summer day and their fans can behave like animals without fear of sanction. Throw in a terrible referee and it becomes almost impossible to beat Mexico on home soil.
Yet when Charlie Davies clipped home a lovely shot after being set up by Donovan for an early 1-0 USA lead, an upset seemed to be in the cards. No American team had ever led Mexico at the Azteca, just like no U.S. squad had ever won there.
However, Mexico's Israel Castro tied the game with a superb long-range strike midway through the first half, and from that moment on, the U.S. was in a fight for survival. The Mexicans dominated possession throughout, moving the ball around and taking the sap out of the legs of the American players. But the breakthrough would not come until the dying minutes – just as the USA started to believe it could hold on for the tie – with Sabah striking the decisive blow with a blast inside the penalty area that gave Howard no chance.
Despite the outcome, no one should be fooled into thinking Mexico now holds the upper hand in this rivalry. El Tri's victory in the Gold Cup against a weakened American side was irrelevant. Last February, the Americans dominated the teams' first CONCACAF Hexagonal qualifier in a 2-0 win in Columbus without any conditional advantage apart from chilly weather.
Toward the end on Wednesday, U.S. players' lungs were bursting and their throats filled with acid, while the altitude-accustomed Mexicans were running around with fresh legs. Undoubtedly, Mexican supporters will now claim regional superiority. However, the only unbalanced thing about this rivalry is the actions of the fans, the unique advantage of Mexico's home conditions and, on this day, a dreadful referee.
- Landon Donovan