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Monday, July 16, 2018

FIFA U-17 World Cup: ‘Gringo’ Xolos and the US-Mexico love

In times of Donald Trump and the proposed border wall, a group of Americans cross over to ‘build bridges’ through football

Written by Sriram Veera | Guwahati | Updated: October 16, 2017 8:46:53 am
fifa u17 world cup, u17 world cup, india fifa world cup, mexico, Fans of Club Tijuana, popularly known as Xolos, are among the most die-hard in the country. (Source: Marty Albert)

“They are not our friend, believe me,” Donald Trump was just warming up against Mexican immigrants during a polarising election campaign. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

At the Mexican border, stood an American Marty Albert. Heavily bearded, in his 40s, a surfer with a face beaten down by sun and water, he walked across the border to Tijuana, known for its crime rate, hailed a taxi, and drove to the 33,000-capacity Estadio Caliente, the football stadium of Club Tijuana, popularly known as Xolos.

Behind the goal post, up in the stands in a section cordoned off and secured with a gate and security guards, a few thousand Mexicans were howling, jumping, singing and creating a ruckus. They are La Masakr3, a band of Mexican football hooligans, or ‘porra’ as they are called in Spanish – everyone gets a beer-wash when Xolos score, brass and drums blast away as they keep chanting, “XooooooL!”.

It wasn’t the first time Marty was there – 2011 was his first trip across for football – and he shares his memories with The Indian Express. Curious about this section of fans, he and a friend walk across when they are stopped by security. “Where do you think you are going, Guero,” a Spanish term for white boy, pronounced where-ho. Marty insists all he wants is fun, and even slips in a few Spanish words which conveyed – ‘I am a gringo (a term for Americans who aren’t Latino or Hispanic) but my heart beats for Xolos’. The guards are amused. “Hope you don’t die, Guero! Go in, you will be locked behind.” La Masackr3 aren’t allowed to leave the section until the game ends, and the other team’s fans, sitting at the far end, leave the stadium. It’s the Hotel California.

Marty and his friend decide to join in. “We don’t know the Spanish song they are singing but we hum along, throw up our arms, and shout XooooooL”. People notice them and stop. “It was like the Red Sea parting, and we were surrounded by these people, going ‘hey Gringo, what you doing here?'” Marty shouts out, “We just want fun. This is the best time of my life. I love you all, and again some Spanish words are thrown in.”

Laughter, a bond is formed, and he has been going there for a few years now. He tells them he used to be married to an Italian, and has been to football games there, and feels a kinship with La Masakr3. He is not only accepted but gets a name – Gringo Xolo!

Now he has a community of friends who call themselves Gringo Xolos and go to games across the border. “We Gringo Xolos don’t build walls, we build bridges. What Mexicans love about me is that I don’t talk shit about them. Tijuana is 25 miles from my home in San Diego in the US. We drive to the border, walk across, get nachos, and have a party at the stadium after the game. And I have to tell you I did not vote for Trump or Hillary. I went for Bernie Sanders. And in football, my heart beats for Xolos.”

Xolos, pronounced cholos, are a unique team in Mexico in that it’s a club that prides itself as a “club without boundaries” – Americans, Mexicans, Venezuelans, and increasingly of late Argentines, play together in the side. It has also provided three players for the Mexico U-17 team, which is in Guwahati now: Daniel Lopez, Luiz Gamiz and Raul Sandoval.

“Xolos is the area’s new club (formed in 2007) but very important in the set-up of Mexican football,” the coach Mario Arteaga tells this newspaper.

“Tijuana is the border town and there are lots of poor people there. Xolos are very, very special to them, and it’s a source of joy and pride for them.”

People from many parts of Mexico land up in Tijuana, hoping to cross over to the USA, but many are stuck. Without much money, frustrated, and helpless, they have tried to rebuild their lives in the new place. But, drug cartels mushroomed, and while the crime rate dipped in the recent past, it has seen a rise again this year.

Till June, it had seen 670 homicides, 69 of them in June alone — crimes that the police attributes to infighting among drug dealers. Jorge Ramos Hernandez, a federal legislator who used to be Tijuana’s mayor, believes state police officers need to be monitored to ensure they aren’t in cahoots with organised crime. “That will be the first step to gaining the support of the population, the cleansing of police forces,” Ramos said.

“It’s the football that has bonded the people here,” Marty, the Gringo Xolo, says. “It has given them an identity – they are celebrated here.” In 2012, just a year after they were promoted to the premier league, Xolos did the unthinkable: they won the premiership. Marty was in San Diego that night, watching the final with 40 fans, and he rushed across the border in the middle of the night to receive the players who landed around midnight at Tijuana. “They had a huge parade – it was crazy fun, fireworks, music, beer, songs … wild stuff.”

In the words of former Mexico striker Jared Borgetti, the Mexican league is attractive and well-structured with competitive teams, and attracts many Mexican-Americans. “I think they feel starting in Mexico gives them better experience than in America,” Borgetti once said.

The Mexican football league is called Liga MX, and by all accounts it’s a cauldron of passion with huge parochial fan bases in Mexico and US. For many Mexicans living in the US, it’s Liga MX that brings home closer. It’s the best-attended league outside Europe – and overall, the fourth most-attended domestic league in the world.

Pachuca Hidalgo is the oldest Mexican club, founded by immigrant English miners who introduced football to Mexicans. Football has spread over the decades — and hosting two World Cups (1970 and 1986) has helped. The most modern club with a new stadium is Torrean Coahuila. Santos Laguna is another club that has had a smattering of Americans playing for them.

The two big clubs are Club America and Chivas – both of which have provided many U-17 players to the current squad. Club America is based in the capital and is supported by a large fan base.

Chivas (means Goats) is based in Guadalajara, and is particularly interesting in that it’s the only team that features 100 per cent Mexicans. No Americans or other foreigners are allowed. The games between Chivas and Xolos is a major derby – the Mexicans vs a club without borders.

“It’s utter madness. I have been to the games when Chivas have come over to Tijuana. But I haven’t gone to an away game yet. I hear it’s wonderfully volatile and chaotic!” says Marty.

He will also have the last word on Xolos, Mexican football, its people and, of course, Trump. “Trump should come to a football game in Mexico. It will then dawn on him. People in the Midwest — Ohio, North and South Dakota — who all voted for Trump, have no clue about life at the border. They think people are crawling over, climbing over, stealing, looting – No, Donald Trump and co., they are not. They are just like you and me, hardworking people who want to take care of their families. Grow up, please. And go to a football game at Xolos.”

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