COLUMBUS, Ohio — It has all the makings of a political statement game: USA vs. Mexico in a World Cup qualifier only three days after Donald Trump was elected president – based in part on his promise to build a wall along the Mexico border to keep illegal immigrants out.
There will be tension, there will be noise, there will be rivalry, there will be beer.
But there’s also a pretty decent chance the political statement will be a statement about sportsmanship.
Sergio Blancas, who is from Mexico City but has lived in the U.S. for 17 years, arrived at a chain link fence late on Thursday afternoon to cheer the Mexico players as they got off the team bus for training. He yelled, “No mas dos a cero!”– the infamous 2-0 score that the U.S. always seems to end up with in this battle. He betrayed no anxiety.
“I don’t think it’ll be a big problem,” he said.
And as for the much-discussed wall?
“It won’t happen,” he said with a laugh.
“Maybe Trump will do something good, who knows.”
Emotions are certainly running high across the country, with anti-Trump protests in major cities, invective flying on social media, and some Hillary Clinton supporters openly weeping on the day after the shocking result. It’s possible some of that will surface in the stands here on Friday night, in a rivalry that’s heated even in calm political times. But Blancas doesn’t expect any of that to come from Mexico fans. And he’s not alone in that hope.
“There’s anger and fear in a few people, and that’s it,” says Wilder Gomez, the publisher of Columbus Al Dia. “I don’t think [there will be protests]. Maybe a few drunk people. As a community, I don’t see anything organized.”
Gomez, who is from Peru, says from his observation the Latino perspective here morphed from initial worry in 2015 to the feeling that Trump was more bluster than bad guy. As the months went by, he sensed a growing feeling that Trump was “more honest and trustworthy.”
“In Columbus,” said Gomez who acknowledged that he voted for Trump, “I don’t see the fear.”
Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio was asked on Thursday about the Trump election, and he didn’t react with much intensity.
“First of all, I was an exchange student,” said the Colombian-born manager. “Then I was an immigrant in the U.S. trying to get a great opportunity and work as hard as any American. I can sympathize what the Mexicans feel about the whole situation. My efforts are all toward winning the game and nothing else. I’m not here to discuss political issues.”
He was then asked a similar question, and two of the staffers from the Mexico contingent sighed and shook their heads.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann was equally diplomatic, saying, “It’s purely a sporting event, purely a game of respect.”
He went on to praise that it was “a wonderful side of sport, it brings people together.”
That leads us to the other unknown: How U.S. and Mexican fans will interact with each other. The home crowd will be expected to be rowdy, especially considering the last time these two teams met was at the Rose Bowl and Mexicans dominated the stands. American fans will try to intimidate the opponents with noise, but will it get unseemly?
“I would hope our fans do what they always do, which is support the team in the best, most passionate way possible,” team captain Michael Bradley said earlier this week. “I would hope they give every person in that stadium the respect that they deserve.”
Midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, who was vocal in his opposition to Trump during the campaign, said, “There’s no need for negative chants from either side.”
“The one thing that I am very proud about is to be part of the U.S. national team and the diversity that you see on this team,” he added. “This is a true representation of what America is all about.”
It’s said that as Ohio goes, so goes the nation. That could be the case again here. If there’s rancor in the stands on Friday – on national television – that might be a sign that sports and politics won’t easily separate in the weeks and months to come. But if there isn’t – if there’s just a regular soccer match with loud but buoyant fans, it could be a sign of acceptance and a return to normalcy. It’s not just soccer that could use a good showing here; it’s the whole country.
“Soccer, sometimes, it makes people happy, makes people feel good,” Blancas said. “It’s a family game, hopefully we have a good time, between the Mexican and American people.”
For many here and elsewhere, that would be a shared victory.