Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tears of Joy (Mexican League Apertura Final 2008) - Beyond the Pale

If you can't remember the last time you watched thousands of mature adults, on a day of deep blue skies and blindingly bright high altitude winter sunshine, all weeping and singing at the same time, then you're like me. And while you like me have probably read in the news lately that happiness has been discovered to be contagious, but only when shared in person, a case might be made for the belief that every now and then you can pick up a bit of contact emotion--including sheer joy--over distances of thousands of miles.

That's what happened to this grateful scribe, observing from afar Sunday's return leg of the championship final of the Mexican fall torneo.

The match was played in Toluca's Estadio Nemesio Diez (nicknamed La Caldera, and for visiting clubs traditionally about as comfortable as the crater of an erupting volcano), and won by Toluca over Cruz Azul by a final global or aggregate count of 2(7)--2(6). But mere numbers do not do justice to such a day. This was an intense, exhausting affair full of wonderfully competitive football--much of it beautiful, passionate, skillful, and some of it brutal; there were thirteen yellow cards, a red card, and more hard knocks than could be counted, yet without a single C-Ron-esque display of wounded theatrics. This was real war, not the opera: one player, the defender Jose Manuel Cruz Alta of Toluca, ended up staying on the pitch all the way to the end with one side of his face blue and swollen twice the size of the other--and he'd been the one who'd got the better of things in a violent clash with the excellent young Cruz Azul midfielder Cesar Villaluz; Villaluz went into convulsions, apparently stopped breathing and when last seen was on oxygen being stretchered off to the hospital (as his side had run out of substitutions, they had to fare the rest of the way--and coming from behind at that-- with ten men).

This was an unrelenting affair which took nearly three hours. Ninety minutes of furious action followed by two periods of leg-heavy extra time followed by an energy-draining round of thirteen penalties, the first twelve all made. When the unlucky-for-the-visitors thirteenth was saved by Toluca's 39-year-old Argentine keeper Hernan Cristante, an infernal ocean of dammed-up feeling broke loose and turned to pure heavenly joy among the red-clad sections of the crowd.

Andres Cantor, the great Mexican announcer, made the contest a stage upon which to build with his astonishing voice the roller coasters of emotion that always make these finals so thrilling--none more so than this one. This was a match that finally wrung every last drop of emotion out of everyone: not only the sincerely committed, enormously valiant players and coaches, but the masses of absolutely involved spectators. There was not a quiet moment all day, the small lagoon of Cruz Azul blue-shirts standing up continuously to sing bravely in the face of the far louder, brighter sea of Toluca red shirts and pennants and banners that surrounded and finally overwhelmed them.

Coming in to this return leg, or vuelta, down 2-0 after a flat and dispirited performance before their disappointed home fans on a bone-chillingly cold night back in the capital, Cruz Azul appeared to have little chance to dig themselves out of the hole they were in. They faced not only perhaps the most difficult of all Mexican away venues, but also the most difficult of defenses; Cristante, indeed, was coming off a recent stretch of nine consecutive games without surrendering so much as a single goal. He'd already won four championships in goal for Toluca, and it appeared now as though a fifth was inevitable.

And indeed, as the gran final now began to unfold, it looked very much like a repeat performance. Once again Toluca was orderly, precise, serene, dominant; as they had in Mexico City three nights earlier, they were playing with energy, discipline, confidence and flair. But then something mysterious occurred. After half-time Cruz Azul coach Benjamin Galindo tossed caution to the winds, made three substitutions, opted to attack at any cost and sent his players out chasing for all they were worth a forlorn hope--what now appeared to be a mission-impossible fightback.

It was as if Galindo had instilled in his team the understanding that to lose by six was no worse than to lose by one or two. And then suddenly, back they came. There was a Cruz Azul score: a lovely centering pass from the gifted joven Villaluz, flicked by the heel of Paraguayan forward Pablo Zeballos (a classic taquito) into the path of Alejandro Vela to turn home. Tienen la esperanza! exclaimed Andres Cantor. They've got a look-in! And then, with twelve minutes left, blue-shirted defender Julio Caesar "Cata" Domingues headed in a corner from Jaime Lozano, and Cantor's famous Gooooooooaaallll! echoed all across the intently listening Republic.

The aggregate stood now at 2-2: and the real drama was at that point only beginning.

The Mexican final--since 1997 three have been two every year, the Apertura in the Fall and the Clausura in the Spring--is a sort of national fiesta, and as such a pretty tough ticket at the best of times. But when, as has happened quite often in recent years (the past two winners before Toluca, Atlante and Santos, were also smaller clubs), the final migrates away from the big stadiums of Mexico City and Guadalajara, it can be all but impossible to buy your way in through honest means.This aspect of things always adds a little extra publicity spice to the run-up, and this year, interviews with ticket-hungry Toluca followers dominated the sports news in advance of the deciding leg.

And so that much anticipated match finally took place on Sunday: in the thin air of this small-to-mid-size provincial market and industrial city--the city located at the highest altitude of any in the Republic, at 2680 metres, high enough indeed to land itself and its earnest, proud little club within fallout range of the Brazilian clubs' longstanding efforts to restrict high-altitude competition in Copa Libertadores competition (a campaign frustrated at one point by the brilliant PR ploy of Bolivian president Evo Morales, who invited reporters to come watch him have a kickabout in the snows of the high reaches of his Andean nation, to suggest that even if pacy Brazilian fullbacks might get winded trying to bomb forward at such altitudes, he himself was hardly daunted by the task.)

Toluca, a small club in a bright red kit--they're sometimes called the Diablos Rojos, Red Devils, and sometimes los choriceros, hot red peppers--has for some time sported a refreshing, intelligent, engaging, highly entertaining style of play, with amazing success considering their low-echelon status in a league perennially dominated by a few big clubs. In overcoming the giant club Cruz Azul--Cruz Azul's shirts bear the blue cross emblem of a huge cement company, and they are accordingly called La Maquina Cementera, and are historically the club of the employed industrial working classes; that is, those with actual jobs, not including peasants--this overachieving minnow Toluca has now won its ninth championship, thus surpassing Cruz Azul's total of eight. (Though always a power, the maquina have been underachieving and won nothing for the past decade.) The only clubs to have won more titles are Chivas of Guadalajara with eleven and America of Mexico City with ten; but neither Chivas, the unofficial national club (they employ only Mexican players, and thus in effect represent everybody, that is, Mexicans of all classes and political persuasions), nor America, owned by the national television-monopoly conglomerate known as Televisa (Americanistas tend to represent the middle class and the political center), have been doing very well of late, and indeed neither of them even managed to quality for the eight-team liguilla from which Toluca now justifiably emerges as campeon.

And so how did that intense long day in the bright high sun finally close? Two relatively slow-motion extra-time periods. Then a period of lie-down in dappled sun-and-shade, and a regathering finally around the managers, Cruz Azul's Galindo and Toluca's Jose Manuel "Chepo" De la Torre (a decade before, the two had been teammates on a championship Chivas team); De la Torre could be seen absent-mindedly stroking the wounded head of his battered defender Cruz Alta, much as a mother strokes the head of a child, as he explained the strategy for kicks to be taken. And then those excruciating penalties, with not a miss through the first dozen, the whole building sequence narrated so wonderfully by Andres Cantor that if you don't enjoy this two-part set of clips of that full narration, you probably don't like football--or high drama:

That second clip also provides, at the end, just a taste of the emotion I mentioned coming in--the heady elixir in the air of an unforgettable day of football, celebration, excitement, pain, and tears of sorrow and joy. You'll see Hernan Cristante, in tears, saluting the home fans, and the wonderfully skilled Brazilian-born midfielder Sinha, holding his child, in quiet tears as he's interviewed; these are battle-hardened international veterans mind you, for the moment totally and quite movingly at one under the bright sun with the equally overjoyed, weeping supporters in their adopted footballing homeland. And then there's an interview with Toluca coach Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre, also in tears. Two years before to the day, De la Torre was celebrating another championship won by a team under his direction. That day it was Chivas. But as you will see, for De la Torre as for almost everybody fortunate enough to have been there (as well as for many of us who weren't), this day it was totally Toluca.

(For the curious, here are two additional highlights clips, one for the first leg and one for the second leg of the final, up to ninety minutes; alas, on these two the announcer is perfectly fine, but is not the great Andres Cantor):

First leg (ida)

Second leg (vuelta)


zeph said...

Well, I know nothing about football, but those clips are pure drama! Thanks BTP.

beyond the pale said...


Yes, and I think it's the wondrous and amazing narration by Andres Cantor, in whose work the full excitement is extracted from every game he announces--and particularly the important ones like this one --that's responsible for a good bit of the drama. It's my guess that Cantor's accounts are emotionally intelligible even if you do not understand a word of Spanish. Here's another sample of Cantor at his best, from the Mexico/Germany game at France '98:

Mouth of the Mersey said...

I usually struggle to get really involved in football that isn't English or the Euro / World Cup, but you've really convinced me with this passionate writing. I shall save the clips for a time I can give them full attention.

Crowds are both exciting and dangerous. There are few proper crowds left in England - there are crowded spaces, but few crowds united by a shared purpose. Even football crowds are diluted now, with half there for the prawn sandwiches - what a shame.

beyond the pale said...

MotM--Yes, that issue of "shared purpose" is exactly what I was trying to bring out in this piece, and I think perhaps those first two video clips and accompanying narration (perhaps the second, with the winning kick, is the one that captures it best) speak to this better than mere written sentences are able. To paraphrase the old saw, sometimes one clip's worth a thousand words. Interesting how this issue of crowd dynamics segues from, and continues the discussion spurred by, Mac's recent post about "The Rights and Obligations of Football Crowds", with the comments posted there by Ebren and you among others. Thanks, then.

mac millings said...

Terrifically vivid, BtP - excellent, as always.

Re crowds: I argued here, back in September, that the varying levels of passion/involvement among crowds of different sports depended for the most part upon the nature of each sport itself. Of course, there are modifying factors, and it's a shame to see one of those factors in action, as football crowds become "diluted", as Mouth put it, in a sea of prawns.

Football IS, in large part, the passion of its crowds, and one wonders how much more of that passion we can afford to lose (in England) before the game starts to die.

Over-dramatic, perhaps, but here in the US, baseball has gone through some tough times recently - fans exasperated first by strikes, then steroids. The game will probably be OK for a fair time yet, but I'm pretty sure (haven't researched this, so am happy to be put right) that it has lost some ground, in the popular imagination, to gridiron. However, it occurs that, controversies aside, baseball, being the type of sport that it is, was never going to hold on to top spot once professional (US) football got its shit together back in the 60s. (It also occurs that professional football was the ONLY thing to get its shit together in the 60s.)

It's to football's advantage (in the UK, at any rate) that there's no sport popular, or passionate, enough to take its place.

beyond the pale said...

Very interesting Mac. I think that several factors led to a certain loss of fan involvement in US baseball; attendance numbers may stay up for the big franchises--the old rich get richer syndrome--but the former unconditional love of common people for the game is gone, washed away in a sea of bigging-up and "we're number one" foam-fingers wagging in the air. As Mac suggests, strikes and steroids were factors in this distancing of the fans, but I believe a larger factor was the quantum increase in salaries that separated ordinary folk from performers so dramatically: if one goes back to Lardner's You Know Me Al and considers the wages players were then paid, it's plain they were on the same scale with those paid the fans, in whatever common line of work. Now the difference is on the order of 100x and upwards. It's hard to identify with men who live like kings, particularly when they behave like selfish spoiled babies.
And as Mac also correctly says, baseball has always had serious competition for the "fan dollar". English football has had the luxury of being able to do without such competition; it's simply all-EPL, all the time. But latterly, the conduct of someone like C. Ronaldo, so openly disregarding and in fact disdaining English fans, would seem to be symptomatic; only because of the uncritical investment of Theatre of Dreamers who would rather win with a pouting, prancing show pony than have their team struggle or, gods forbid, lose, with players of more ordinary skills but more admirable character, can a player like that be permitted to continue to bask in apparent fan approval. But that's United; a not too dissimilar case has been that of Alex Rodriguez with the New York Yankees. No fan in his or her "right mind" could actually identify with these sullen cosmic luminaries.
But the story in Mexican football is quite different. The players are quite well paid by local standards, but nothing like so well as players are paid in the EPL and elsewhere in Europe. Because they do not earn absolutely obscene sums, the players, though many move from club to club in the standard modern mercenary fashion, often do become local heroes of a sort. And this has indeed happened with two of the veteran Toluca players mentioned in my piece, the Brazilian-born "naturalized" Antonio Naelson "Sinha" and the Argentine Hernan Cristante.
And it is vividly evident from the post-game celebration depicted on the second video clip I've posted that there's an actual mutual feeling, perhaps even approaching love, between these players and their families and the "family" of fans. As it happens, I have Mexican-born acquaintances who were in tears over the Toluca victory. Toluca is a club outside the big-money pale of the Televisa media empire; they resemble neither United nor the Yankees nor for that matter any of the great imperial clubs of the world. Their victory became a cause for joy in people's hearts. One Mexican hotel worker I know, as we discussed the game afterward, simply patted his heart, smiled, and said "corazon". For that is where true loyalty begins: the heart. Being "number one" is just the icing on the cake, when it happens. Unless such feeling is somehow brought back to sports, I don't see that we can--or should--expect to see deeply felt fan support outside the lesser clubs. Those who ride with winners do so not for heart reasons but for ego reasons. Sublimated or vicarious dominance is in the end just as ugly as any other kind of dominance.

Mac Millings said...

An excellent considered response, BtP. I'm off to bed, so nothing to add for now, but I do have a request. What books would you recommend that describe what baseball means (or has meant in the past) to its (US) fans? Or, indeed, any general baseball book recommendations would be welcomed.

MotM said...

A professor of mine - - recommended this I haven't read it, but David knew his stuff and is a decent bloke.

mac said...

Thanks, Mouth!

beyond the pale said...

Mac, the book Mouth has suggested--Jim Bouton's "Ball Four"--is a wonderfully irreverent cult classic, now forty years out of date but still a pleasure. The book I mentioned, Ring Lardner's "You Know Me Al", dates back to forty years before that and is even better. But in both cases, those days are gone forever, and sad to say there's currently far less joy to be had either from the game itself or from books about it.

Probably the last true-eccentric folk "character" the game of baseball produced, Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, disappeared in the late Seventies, but--if you can find it--his oral autobiography, No Big Deal, captures a little of the vanished glory of those times when the sport reflected some of what was best (as well as what was weirdest) about a common culture now hard to locate amid the prevailing megastructures of money, business and media hype. (Sound familiar, EPL fans?)

Another classic baseball book many people still enjoy is Roger Kahn's Boys of Summer, a lovely nostalgic look back at a bygone epoch, concentrating in this case on former players of a once-famous club that no longer exists, the Brooklyn Dodgers. (Sorry to be giving away my age by suggesting I think the "golden era" of the so-called national pastime--and I'll confess to having written half a dozen books about it, once upon a time--are long gone. And in the same breath I must admit to remaining a perpetually suffering fan of a team I won't name, only in part because they're forever letting me down. Which reminds me, apropos this phenomenon of the perpetually suffering fan, the best comment I know of is that of the comic book writer Harvey "American Splendor" Pekar, who, taunted by TV talk show host David Letterman about his allegiance to a losing team, the Cleveland Indians, responded that he refused to feel bad when the Indians lost because when he himself was doing badly, the Indians didn't seem to mourn for his problems; a wisdom in that, I thought, that all fans everywhere might usefully reflect upon.)

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