It’s only a game, right? Not if we’re talking soccer and USA vs. Mexico.
We all know that sports are a metaphor for real life. But in soccer—or fútbol, as it’s known in Mexico—the metaphor is especially fervent, particularly where relations with the United States are concerned. That rivalry is the heart and soul (and roar) of Gringos at the Gate, the latest documentary from Santa Clara’s Michael Whalen.
Whalen co-wrote, co-directed, edited, and co-produced the project with a team of film (and soccer- filming) veterans. Gringos premiered at the Kicking + Screening festival in New York this summer, with showings in Los Angeles, Portland, and Santa Clara since. It has its Mexican premiere at the Oaxaca Film Festival in November. The fifth film for Whalen—an associate professor of communication—it’s his first to feature Mexican soccer fans chanting obscenities about American soccer fans.
Most Americans are quite aware of the conflict that festers between the United States and Mexico over such hot-button issues as immigration and drug trafficking. Far fewer of us stateside understand the zealous distaste and, in many cases, outright loathing that Mexican fans feel when it comes to the U.S. national team.
This animosity, outlined well by Whalen and his fellow filmmakers, has been gurgling with more intensity because of Mexico’s eroding soccer dominance in the Western Hemisphere. Now Brazil and Argentina dominate.
What’s more, from 1934 to 1993, Mexico’s national team lost just three times to the USA in 31 meetings.
Since 1994, the “Gringos” have won 14 of 29 games between the two teams. But Mexico always won against USA at home—until this August, that is, when Team USA beat Mexico 1–0 at Azteca Stadium. To be fair, that was just after the 2012 Olympics—which marked the occurrence of another first worth celebrating in Mexico City: They brought home the gold in soccer.
THEY CAN’T SAY THAT YET
If Gringos at the Gate has a centerpiece personality, it is Herculez Gomez, a Mexican-American player who grew up in Las Vegas, has played pro soccer in the Mexican League, and is a member of the USA national team. Gomez speaks about his immigrant father’s torn allegiances in deciding which team to follow and about the abuse he receives from both Mexicans and Americans, depending where he’s playing.
Other incisive remarks come from coaches, university professors, and soccer executives—and probably too many drunken fans. Yet as with every good documentary, visuals tell the story better than sound bites. The Gringos crew journeys to Mexico City for a World Cup qualifier involving the USA, and they capture the home team’s waves of obsessive fans clogging the roads and sidewalks. The filmmakers then travel to Ohio for another Mexico-USA matchup—and discover that most folks on the rainy streets of downtown Columbus have no idea that the game is even being played in their fair city.
Gringos also drops hints that attitudinal change is afoot. Los Angeles Times columnist Hector Tobar notes that many Mexican-American fathers in Southern California would secretly be proud to have their sons play for the USA national team, but the fathers “can’t say that yet” publicly.
One question, however, is posed but left unanswered. And it has real-world ramifications: Would a consistently dominant USA soccer team convince more Mexican-Americans to assimilate in terms of allegiance to their adopted country in all ways? After watching Gringos, anyone who laughs off that question as being a trivial sports concern will stop chuckling.