Our Favorite Games: Mexico beats USMNT in World Cup qualifying, but Estadio Azteca wins biggest

Landon Donovan gestures toward the crowd during a World Cup qualifying match against Mexico in 2009 at Azteca Stadium. (Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Landon Donovan gestures toward the crowd during a World Cup qualifying match against Mexico in 2009 at Azteca Stadium. (Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

By the time the summer of 2009 rolled around, I’d already been unbelievably fortunate. Work had taken me to an Olympics, to Castro’s Cuba at a time when most Americans were forbidden to travel there, and, not least, to bona fide futbol cathedrals like Wembley, the Bernabeu and Hampden Park.

Yet of all the world’s iconic soccer stadiums, the venue from which I most wanted to cover a match wasn’t any of those.

It was the legendary Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.

(Paul Rosales/Yahoo Sports)
(Paul Rosales/Yahoo Sports)

From a distance, everything about the Azteca seemed larger than life. It’s mind-bendingly enormous, for starters. Almost 115,000 watched Diego Maradona hoist the World Cup trophy there in 1986. Azteca was the first stadium to stage two World Cup finals (the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro has since become the second), and some of the most famous games ever played — Pele-led Brazil trouncing Italy in the 1970 final, Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal against England 16 years later — took place inside its cavernous walls.

It is notoriously intimidating. Perched more 7,200 feet above sea level, the combination of the history, the ocean of fans and the altitude makes Azteca a fortress for the Mexican national team. There’s literally a moat around the field. El Tri went decades between losses there. When the United States men’s national team finally eked out a scoreless draw in a 1997 World Cup qualifier, it improved its record in Mexico’s smoggy capital to 0-18-1.

From the moment I became a sports journalist, I wanted to go there for a USMNT-Mexico qualifier. In August of 2009, I finally got the chance.

Kickoff was scheduled for high noon despite the match being on a Wednesday. I arrived on a redeye from New York just before dawn, in time to see the metropolis of 21 million waking up. Then it was off to the U.S. team hotel where, for our safely, visiting media members were hustled past military cops toting machine guns and onto a bus to escorted to Azteca by a police motorcade.

It’s hard to describe just how gigantic Azteca is in person. Just a month earlier, I’d covered the Gold Cup final between these same rivals at New Jersey’s 80,000-seat Giants Stadium, which was then the NFL’s third-largest arena. Azteca, with those foreboding concrete columns, looked like it could’ve swallowed Giants Stadium whole.

We got up to the outdoor press box a couple of hours early, but the stands were already beginning to fill up. The atmosphere was off the charts once the whistle blew. Whenever the hosts strung a couple of passes together, the derisive “oles” would ring out. On the rare occasions where the Americans had the ball, the entire crowd hissed like a hive of bees. The only time the place went silent for a brief moment was after U.S. forward Charlie Davies ran onto a perfect through-ball from Landon Donovan and tucked home the opening goal. Davies was rewarded with a beer shower as he danced by the corner flag.

Mexico equalized before halftime, then scored a late winner. But for me anyway, the result was secondary to the rest of the experience. I’ll never forget watching heavily armored riot police trying in vain to shield Donovan from the barrage of projectiles — bags of urine have long been an Azteca staple — that rained down as he prepared to take a second half corner kick. Or the beer thrown from high above that exploded on the back of my head just as I was about to send in my match report. Or how thoroughly winded just walking up the tunnel to street level afterward made my colleagues and I. How anyone, even super-fit athletes, could run around in that thin air for 90 minutes under a beating sun remains beyond me.

I’ve covered countless events since. The Stanley Cup playoffs. Multiple World Cups. Soccer games in more than a dozen countries, including another U.S.-El Tri qualifier in Mexico City in 2013. With the sports we love to watch on hiatus for now and the future terrifyingly uncertain, I appreciate how fortunate I’ve been more than ever now. But to me, that first trip to the Azteca will always stand alone.

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