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Philadelphia Union fans at Azteca: A first-person account of Club América away

Jonathan Bach recounts his journey to Mexico City for the Union’s first leg of the Concacaf Champions League semifinal

It hadn’t really settled in that the Philadelphia Union were playing the biggest team in Mexico until the cab ride to the stadium. Unlike many of the other Union fans that made the journey to Mexico City who took a bus from the Sons of Ben tailgate to the Azteca, my group of 3 decided to take a fancy private taxi in and maximize our time running around the city. The taxi ends up being a good example of life in Mexico City so I’m going to bring it up a few times.

We landed on Tuesday morning in Mexico City after catching a 6 a.m. flight out of Philly (being at PHL Airport at 4 a.m. is an experience I don’t recommend). Immediately after landing, our thought was “food” and naturally tacos but instead we stumbled onto one of a hundred Tortas stands in the area. If you didn’t know, a torta is an oversized sandwich with a meat or two of your choice with various veggies, avocado, sauces, etc. We asked how much everything was and were told 95 Mexican pesos for 3 tortas. At first your reaction is “Wow that’s ridiculous” until you learn the conversion rate. The entire meal ended up being less than 5 American dollars. This was the first of many, many authentic Mexican street food carts we would hit over the 4 days we were in Mexico City. Everything from tacos, quesadillas, chilaquiles, flautas, and so much more. And everything was ridiculously cheap but ridiculously delicious.

The city itself is beautiful and bustling, people on the go all day long. Our hotel was sandwiched between Centro and Chapultepec in an area called Zona Rosa, which had tons of bars and nightclubs as well as its fair share of shopping and restaurants. (We ended up staying at the Hotel NH Collection Mexico City Reforma, highly recommend, they hooked us up with the taxi in the taxi story). We did as much as we could in the four-day span. We ran around Chapultepec for a day, touring the various museums and landmarks including the Castillo de Chapultepec which gave us a wonderful view of the Mexico City Skyline. We took the 30 minute car ride to Coyoacan to tour it’s colorful markets and try an obnoxious amount of food (including pig’s feet tacos which were surprisingly good and very, very spicy). The Centro area of Mexico City included the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the National Palace, the Metropolitan Cathedral and an abundance of cops.

I never felt like I was in any immediate danger, but some parts of the city felt like something was coming. Our area specifically had a higher than normal police presence, partially because we were located right next to the Ministry of Public Security. But it didn’t seem normal for cops in SWAT gear heading into the local OXXO (chain convenience store) with an M16. However we were told that these were simply precautions to protect us, the tourists. From an economic stand point, Covid-19 hit them just as bad as it hit us. Tourism numbers are down for obvious reasons like restricted travel guidance, and when we asked a local officer, we were told any negative experience related to crime would reflect poorly on the country as a whole and thus the tourism income would decrease as well. It made sense, however it was still eerie.

On game day, we wore Union gear for the first time and finally felt some eyes on us. Nothing threatening, but some were definitely aware of who we were, especially since the BY/U jerseys are hard to miss. But we didn’t care and we carried on with our day. We had to decide how we were getting to the famed Estadio Azteca. Uber rides seemed like a solid option but not with a solid return plan. We weren’t going to have enough time to meet up with the rest of the Union crew to take a bus to the stadium. Our hotel was aware we were going to the game and offered to take us there and bring us back. We generally avoided things that likely would be expensive, but we figured this was most likely the safest option. I didn’t catch our driver’s name that night but he played a significant role in getting us to the stadium and out. The drive to the Azteca on a game day was nuts. Tons of I-76 like traffic, tons of people cutting in and out of lanes to make 0% progress, and the time of arrival going up by the minute. But eventually we made it to the Azteca and it was quite the sight. The stadium’s layout isn’t the best I will admit. Our taxi driver who had been there many times before, had no idea where we were supposed to be dropped off. He blew past security guards to get us into restricted areas only to be turned away and sent to the general public area. Unfortunately for us, we got there before the rest of the Union crew, so the 3 of us in full Union gear had to stand outside of the main gate of the Azteca waiting. Every 2 minutes scalpers would come over asking if we had tickets. It didn’t seem to register to them that we were with the away team, so yes we had tickets and didn’t make the 2,000 mile journey without them.

Finally the rest of the Philly supporters showed up and we were brought in through a side entrance. The Azteca has some serious security policies. Some people had their belts taken away. All of our scarves needed to go back to the bus (I wasn’t even on the bus, so if someone has my favorite powder blue scarf from that day, help a guy out). Once we made it through the gates, a private stand was waiting for us. We paid about 120 pesos for a tall Modelo, so about $4, which I had no complaints about. After a few minutes of waiting we were brought up to our seats. The barbed wire fences surrounding our section could’ve been dressed up a little bit nicer, maybe so we didn’t feel like a bunch of prison inmates who were being let outside to watch a football game. We questioned whether the fences were to keep us away from America fans or vice versa. Ultimately, it ended up being to keep them away from us.

The stadium is in a very high altitude, and you notice it immediately, especially sitting in the 500 level seats they gave us. I couldn’t imagine how the Philadelphia players felt having to run for 90+ minutes. It was nice to be surround by Union fans for the two hours we were there. The familiar chants you hear at Subaru Park were being led by guys like Mike Thomas and Sid MacLeod, and at times we were the only noise in the stadium. The Azteca was a unique place where it was loud when anyone made a sound, but had an almost deafening silence when no one was chanting.

After the first goal, I had to hold onto my newly promoted girlfriend-turned-fiance as the Club America fans immediately turned toward our section and began shaking the fences, yelling some words, and giving us the middle finger. Oddly, this is when I noticed that there were barely any security guards in our area. We assumed that the fence must have been enough for them. As the game went on, some America fans came by for pictures, giving us the “they aren’t all bad” impression of their fan base.

One of my favorite things about the game was just sitting and meeting people who I’ve never met in person but have had Twitter conversations with. I won’t name everyone but I loved getting a few minutes to chat with you. Based on some Twitter reactions, I expected the mood to be very dampened after the first goal, but we were all just happy to be at the most famous stadium in Mexico, playing one of the top teams in North America. A long way from the dark days of the Philadelphia Union and a sign of things to come for the team.

A crap penalty call and a few minutes later and the game was over. We were scurried out of our section almost immediately after the game, not knowing there would be a squad of 50+ officers with riot shields waiting to escort us out of the stadium. I’ll admit, I felt a bit cheated at times because the Azteca was only at around 30% capacity. The rowdiness was a bit toned down, the crowd was rained out, it didn’t have that same aura that other teams have experience travelling to the Azteca. But the exit kind of made up for it. Boos and swears rained down on us just as the rain had done on the Club America fans. This was the experience I was waiting for. As the 60+ Union fans who made the trip walked down the stadium ramp, many of the boos turned into cheers and hands clapping, and some fans swapped jerseys on their way out.

The armed guards stopped right at the gate, basically saying “you’re on your own”. Unfortunately for us, we had to walk through the entire parking lot in our full Union gear. By this time, it was pretty dark and had no clue what our taxi looked like. Was it silver? Was it black? We started to panic a bit as some fans began to notice and heckle us. But just as it got a little tense, our taxi driver suddenly appeared like a scene straight out of Rush Hour 3 (he didn’t say “I want to be an American” like in the movie, but it had those vibes). He swung his door open and drove us out of there as fast as possible. So fast, that he ended up taking a few wrong turns and we ended up in some sketchy dark alleys behind the Estadio Azteca, which I don’t recommend for tourists, or people in general. We got back on track and ultimately made it onto the main road back home. An hour later, we were at our hotel and finally we decided to ask how much the trip was. His answer was 1000 Mexican Pesos, so around $50 dollars. We were shocked that our hero drove us to the game (an hour and a half), sat in the parking lot for 3+ hours, and drove us back home (another hour) and it only cost us $50. I tipped him pretty well, especially since he paid for the parking cost as well. We had wondered the entire game if this guy was going to ditch us and we were very thankful that he didn’t. Our experience with him was a solid representation of how well we were treated while in Mexico. Everyone worked hard, was polite, and wanted to help.

While the Union didn’t pull out the best result, it wasn’t the worst and there were some positives that they can take into their home leg. This was my second big away match (the first being in Houston for the Open Cup), and the game played very similar to that. An early chance for the Union missed, a deflected goal and then a nail in the coffin. The big difference is the Union have a chance to steer things back on track, get the job done at home and punch their ticket to the final of the Concacaf Champions League.

Overall, Mexico City turned out to be an amazing place where a return trip is already being discussed to hit everything we were not able to do the first time around. I hear a certain national team is playing there in March.