The Uber driver seemed confused as to why two English tourists would want to head to the Estadio Azteca on a Saturday night. “Are you guys sure? Really?”
His caution could be understood as we arrived at the destination and got out of the car. A flurry of ticket touts and popcorn sellers swarmed towards us as dozens of armed police in riot gear guarded the stadium entrance.
It was a vibrant atmosphere. There were stalls everywhere, selling replica kits for as little as four pounds and snacks from tacos to Domino’s pizza. All around us were fans adorned in pale yellow Club America shirts, chanting and banging drums as loud as humanly possible.
This is football in Mexico City, a microcosm for the city in general: passionate, intense and with a distinct love for food.
Club America are Mexico’s most successful club, boasting 12 league titles. They are also the country’s big spenders, with the £12m signing of Colombian winger Carlos Quintero in 2015 still the biggest outlay in the league’s history.
They play at the Estadio Azteca, the iconic venue for Brazil’s 1970 World Cup final victory and Diego Maradona’s infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal in 1986. It is a magnificent structure with a capacity of over 100,000.
The only downside to the stadium is that it never sells out and, for league games such as the one I attended against Santos Laguna, a crowd of 26,000, while creating pockets of noise, left an oddly subdued atmosphere.
This season marks Club America’s 100th anniversary, yet a defeat to bitter rivals Chivas in the semi-finals of the Copa MX Trophy means there hasn’t been much to celebrate. The Mexican League is divided into two halves, the Apertura and the Clausura. It is currently the Apertura – the opening half of the season – with Club America aiming to finish in the top eight to qualify for the championship play-offs. Santos Laguna, today’s opponents, are a much weaker side more likely to be relegated than win the league anytime soon.
Having been advised that it wouldn’t be difficult to get a ticket, I quickly navigated my way through the sea of touts to the turnstiles. A top-priced seat cost just over £10; not bad to see one of Latin America’s biggest clubs. I had also been told not to bring a belt to the game, which seemed strange at the time but turned out to be wise advice as anybody wearing one saw it confiscated by the security guards.
This time of year is surprisingly cold in Mexico City and, with the game kicking off at 9pm, the temperature was similar to the weather I had happily left behind in England. It was a few days before the start of the Day of the Dead festival, so many fans turned up dressed as clowns and ghosts, adding a surreal edge to the evening.
There is no pre-game pub culture in Mexico, but fans sit around the food stalls and discuss their score predictions and the quality of the tacos with equal fervour. Estadio Azteca is a peculiar sight from a distance. A towering concrete monolith with car parking levels on the lower floors, it has the look of a shopping centre rather than a national football stadium. It’s only once you get to the seats that the vast size leaves you taken aback.
With supporters clustered mainly behind the two goals, my row and the three behind it were completely empty, making it feel like an eerie private viewing of the game. Yet as soon as we found our seats, stewards rushed up and down the aisles selling beer, popcorn, hotdogs and burgers. In Mexico, food really is available everywhere.
Before the game kicked off, the club mascot, an Eagle, was paraded on the field to rapturous applause. Home form has been a problem for Las Aguilas this season, perhaps owing to the pressure of celebrating their 100th anniversary. Club America’s line-up is predominantly comprised of local players with a few big-money South American signings adding a bit of extra quality and inevitably raising the supporters’ expectations.
The game itself was a tight battle. Club America’s Ecuadorian winger Renato Ibarra, signed from Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem in the summer, caused havoc down the right wing, earning an early penalty that Argentine striker Silvio Romero duly dispatched.
But Santos Laguna, despite struggling in the bottom half of the table, managed to score an equaliser after half an hour, prompting an angry reaction from the home crowd before prolonged silence. I eased the tension with a slice of pepperoni pizza and a Corona from the steward who had been circling our aisle in anticipation.
The silent protest was short-lived, with the lively Ibarra assisting fellow Ecuadorian Michael Arroyo, who made it 2-1 with a close-range finish just before half time. A nearby fan noted it was Arroyo’s third goal in three games, and shortly after the break Rubens Sambueza made it 3-1 to Club America.
From then on, the game was a formality as the home side calmly maintained possession and prevented Santos Laguna from creating any real chances. A chilly evening gradually became even colder as the clock ticked past 10.30pm, but nobody left early. Even the baby sitting on his mother’s lap a few seats behind me was still smiling.
The Mexican league is regarded as the strongest in the CONCACAF confederation, with Mexican sides dominating the CONCACAF Champions League ahead of MLS clubs every year. However, compared to football in England, the quality – at least in this game – resembled a scrappy mid-table Championship clash.
After the final whistle, the fans were in no rush to get back home on a Saturday night, crowding around the taco stalls and chatting about the match. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the experience was seeing the number of women and children in attendance. Despite the late kick-off, the evening had a relaxed, community feel to it.
In the modern game where Premier League football captures the imagination of fans across the globe, it is refreshing to see that the Liga Mx reigns supreme in Mexico City, with fans proudly walking the streets in the colours of Club America, Pumas and Cruz Azul.
The city’s passion for football is one to behold, and the experience of going to a local match is one I would love to repeat.