MEXICO CITY — The USA-Mexico soccer rivalry is heated enough, but the CONCACAF region’s fiercest foes have had some fuel added to the fire courtesy of American president Donald Trump, whose quest to build a wall between the nations has helped turned him into a reviled figure south of the border.
U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena did his best to downplay any animosity that might exist between the teams because of Trump’s politics, and Arena’s own statement about Mexicans just might earn him some applause when the teams take the field at Estadio Azteca on Sunday night.
“I think we have the greatest respect for Mexico, its people, its football team,” Arena said on Saturday. “I live in Los Angeles. I’ve experienced on a daily basis people of Mexican heritage. They’re wonderful people. They contribute greatly to our society in many ways. We think the world of them.
“I’m ashamed that there’s perhaps some discord on the political side, but believe me, I think most American appreciate the Mexicans that have come to America to make a better future for themselves and their families, and the way they’ve contributed.”
Arena’s sentiments were echoed last November by a U.S. supporter group, the American Outlaws, which made a concerted effort to make Mexican fans in Columbus, Ohio feel welcome when the two nations met in their previous World Cup qualifying encounter.
As for whether the political climate surrounding a USA-Mexico soccer match might effect the play on the field, Tim Howard put that notion to rest.
“When these guys are bearing down on you Donald Trump is the last thing on your mind,” Howard said. “It’s a great storyline but there are so many factors out here that are going to occupy all of our thoughts.”
The tradition of the rivalry has seen the two sides square off in some extremely contentious encounters, but there does seem to be a more cordial vibe around the latest clash between the sides. Arena is hoping that carries over to Sunday.
“This is a great rivalry, and if we can play a great game tomorrow, with great sportsmanship and respect for each other, I think it’d be fantastic,” Arena said.