By Noah Davis
International soccer is full of wonderful, intense, dynamic rivalries. Glance in any direction, and you'll discover two teams with a rich history of going hammer and tongs at each other for decades. England versus Germany or Argentina. Argentina against Brazil. The French battling the Italians. The list goes on and on.
For my money, however, every one pales in comparison to the greatest current rivalry in international football: the United States versus Mexico. No other clash combines the level of soccer talent, the regional bragging rights, the intense dislike, and the "big brother-little brother" dynamic" quite like a battle between the two North American countries.
The soccer, of course, comes first. The U.S. and its neighbor to the south might not play the best football in the world, but both sides can hold their own on the international stage and continue to improve. Neither team boasts a Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, but the two classes of 18- to 24-year-olds are arguably each country's best generation ever and brimming with promise. Mexico has made it out of its group in the last four World Cups, a streak which should continue in South Africa, while for the United States, success on the game's biggest stage is no longer a matter of if, but when.
On the pitch, the two teams dislike each other immensely. Harsh feelings and bad blood exist at every turn, and it's only getting worse. From Oswaldo Sanchez disparaging Landon Donovan's mother to the U.S. striker returning the favor and inciting an uproar by peeing on the field at Estadio Jalisco, the anger is palpable and obvious Just this week, Antonio Naelson "Sinha" stoked the fires more, saying, "We can't be afraid of playing soccer against a team that, from my point of view, is not better than the Mexican squad." Even friendlies reach a level of fevered intensity rarely seen on soccer pitches around the world.
As the two best teams in North and Central America bragging rights for soccer dominance in the region are at stake in a way that's not possible with two European teams. Although the Americans have had the upper hand recently, winning nine and losing only two of the last 14 matches, Mexico's history, talented new generation, and fiercely loyal supports keep the debate alive. It's an argument that may never be settled; a discussion that will continue as long as the sport is played.
What sets this rivalry apart, however, is more than just football. In the current world, few other countries can claim to be as closely intertwined to one another as the United States and Mexico. Until very recently, Mexican fans outnumbered American supporters when the Red, White, and Blue played on its home soil. Even today, the United States Soccer Federation must choose its venues carefully. A match in Los Angeles or Dallas is sure to echo with chants for Los Tricolores. America might be the land of opportunity, but Mexicans who venture into this country never forget from where they came. They'd like to see nothing more than the eleven players from land of their birth defeat a team consisting of men from where they now reside.
Ironically, the recent American success on the pitch has only intensified the rivalry. For years, the Mexican population could look to the soccer dominance it had over its Northern neighbor with pride. Games between the two nations were exciting, but for 50 years we knew the outcome before the opening whistle blew. Now, however, the certainly of a Mexican victory has been replaced by a nail-biting battle royale. The intensity never fails to exist. When Donovan said, "It's not just another game for me. I clearly, absolutely, desperately want to beat them," he was speaking for every player and every fan on both sides of the ball.
The United States versus Mexico means much more than what happens on the confines of the soccer field. Each match continues the hundreds of years of history between the two interlocked countries. It's a rivalry of both soccer and socio-economics. Quite simply, it's the best the world has.
Noah Davis covers the United States National Team for Goal.com.