Former United States national team defender Alexi Lalas used his pulpit as part of ESPN’s broadcast crew Tuesday to proclaim the U.S. vs. Mexico fixture as “the greatest international rivalry in the world.” His brother Greg, editor in chief of MLSsoccer.com, penned an article on Major League Soccer’s website the same day outlining three criteria substantiating this lofty assertion – a battle for continental supremacy, tussles over players, and sociopolitical factors.
Those criteria, taken individually or collectively, are not unique to the U.S. and Mexico. Nor do they define the parameters of what makes an outstanding rivalry. Epic contests are those played out on the game’s grandest stages that enthrall worldwide audiences. In this respect, Tuesday’s scoreless tie in Mexico City was nothing more than the latest episode of a parochial squabble.
Any consideration of great rivalries has to start with the two nations that have combined for nine World Cup triumphs in 19 tournaments – Brazil and Italy. Pele, Rivelino, Jairzinho and Carlos Alberto captured the world’s imagination with an extravagant exhibition to destroy the Italians in the 1970 World Cup Final. Paolo Rossi gained revenge in 1982 with a hat-trick against a Brazil side including Socrates, Zico and Falcao that were, many argue, the best team never to lift the trophy.
Il Derby del Mondo, the “Derby of the World” as the Italians refer to it, traditionally presents a compelling clash between the free-flowing, samba-inspired Brazilians and the cerebral, tactically astute and technically gifted Italians. Their most recent World Cup meeting at the Pasadena Rose Bowl in the 1994 final produced a display of defensive magnificence by Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini that has few, if any, equals. Geographical or political sparring is absent between the distant countries, yet their fight for global soccer pre-eminence that has been waged since the 1938 World Cup semi-finals is unparalleled.
Concacaf’s biggest rivalry is heightened because a Gold Cup title or World Cup qualifying berth is almost always at stake, Greg Lalas myopically contends. Grudge matches in Europe and South America are hardly inconsequential affairs.
“The only confederation that ever came close was Oceania, which used to enjoy a decent back-and-forth between Australia and New Zealand,” Lalas said. Does this mean that Australia vs. New Zealand was among the world’s great rivalries until the Australians joined the Asian Football Confederation? Its outcome determined Oceania’s regional champions and World Cup representative, matching the prizes awaiting the U.S. and Mexico.
Lalas used the paradox of Michael Orozco Fiscal to illustrate the scramble between the U.S. and Mexico to claim young talent. Fiscal, the California-born son of Mexican migrants, scored the winner in last summer’s friendly when the U.S. claimed its first victory over the Mexicans at the Estadio Azteca. He likens Fiscal to Argentines who have represented Italy and African players who have chosen to play for France.
“But those nations are not rivals of any serious kind,” Lalas said.
England and Scotland are serious rivals. They also share the world’s oldest international fixture dating back to 1872. England have 45 wins from 110 meetings to Scotland’s 41. Despite the huge disparity of resources available to both countries, their rivalry has been significantly more competitive than the historical head-to-head series between the U.S. and Mexico.
England and Scotland last met in a 1999 play-off to determine which country would advance to the following summer’s European Championships. Scotland won the second game at Wembley Stadium by a single goal but lost 2-1 on aggregate. Don Hutchison, Scotland’s goalscorer, was an English-born and bred midfielder who played his entire career south of the border with Liverpool, West Ham United, Everton and others. Michael Orozco Fiscal’s situation is nothing new.
The third tenet of Lalas’ argument relates to the “battle for hearts and minds,” as he puts it, encompassing patriotism, power and current geopolitical contentiousness. Sovereignty issues are not exclusive to North America, nor can these intangibles boost the U.S. vs. Mexico rivalry anywhere close to storied feuds such as England vs. Germany, Germany vs. The Netherlands, England vs. Argentina, Italy vs. Germany or Argentina vs. Brazil.
“I’ll admit a Brazil-Argentina clash is a showcase of breathtaking talent, but there is no serious fractiousness between the nations,” Lalas said. Does there need to be? Is serious fractiousness a prerequisite for two teams to share an intense rivalry?
Argentina’s regional tussles with Brazil gained worldwide infamy during the 1978 World Cup when allegations of match-fixing marred the Albiceleste’s path to the final at Brazil’s expense. Diego Maradona’s dismissal during Brazil’s 3-1 win in 1982 and Claudio Caniggia’s late breakaway goal in 1990 have since added to the legend that has been building since 1914.
Mexico vs. the U.S. lacks anything of note on the global stage to compete. El Tri has never reached a World Cup quarter-final on foreign soil. The Americans have progressed to the last eight only once since finishing third in the inaugural tournament in 1930. Goals from Brian McBride and Landon Donovan from a second-round game between the sides in 2002 might be a big deal to some sports fans in California and the Carolinas. They are barely memorable on any other continent.
Truly great rivalries conjure images of the fantastic players that have shaped those feuds through striking moments of beauty and ugliness – Maradona’s “Hand of God” and slaloming second goal against the English; Marco van Basten’s sliding finish against the West Germans in the 1988 European Championships; and Fabio Grosso’s 119th-minute goal to sink the Germans in Dortmund in 2006.
The U.S. vs. Mexico rivalry has intensified since the turn of the millennium with the improving Americans winning 11 of 20 meetings to close the gap. About 2.4 million viewers tuned in to ESPN’s broadcast Tuesday with another 4.6 million watching on the Spanish-language channel UniMas. The world’s greatest battles attract a larger audience than 2.2 percent of the population in their home countries.
The greatest rivalries also resonate around the world. Are we seriously to believe that soccer fans in Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania and even Latin America are more enchanted with the U.S. vs. Mexico than England vs. Germany?