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Canada has history at Azteca Stadium, but little of it has been good

Azteca Stadium has been a house of horrors for most visitors. But no one can deny the venerable Mexico City soccer venue has history.

Azteca Stadium has been a house of horrors for most visitors. But no one can deny the venerable Mexico City soccer venue has history.

"Just soaking it in," said Canada coach John Herdman, looking around during a virtual availability from the stadium on the eve of Canada's World Cup qualifying game against Mexico on Thursday night. "It's a pretty historic stadium. I remember watching this as a kid — the '86 World Cup. Man, it's what lit my fire for football. It's a proud moment to be here."

For former Canadian international Jason Bent, soaking it in at Azteca meant something else.

"I was one of the unfortunate ones to be hit with a plastic bag of urine — on my leg," said Bent, now an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Galaxy coach, recalling a 2000 match with Canada there.

The Mexican fans were no amateurs. The loosely tied bag was designed to open on contact.

Canada lost 2-0 that day in August 2000, before a crowd of 80,000. The Canadian men are 0-6-1 against Mexico all-time at Azteca and have been outscored 16-0 there over the last four matches there dating back to July 1993.

The history and challenge of Azteca loom large. Altitude, a loud crowd and formidable opposition add to the degree of difficulty. 

"It's always special playing here," said midfielder Jonathan Osorio, who has played Cruz Azul and Club America at Azteca in Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League matches with Toronto FC.

"These guys have been one of the best for a very long time in this region," he added. "As a competitor, you always want to play against the best. You want to prove yourself against the best. It's the way you grow as a player and a person. And everybody here on the team is looking forward to it."

At No. 9, Mexico is the top-ranked team in the confederation that covers North and Central America and the Caribbean. Canada, on the climb, is ranked No. 51.

Construction on Azteca began in 1961 but was delayed due to challenging conditions. According to FIFA, 180 million kilograms of rock had to be removed from 64,000 square metres of land to create a firm surface to build on.

The stadium finally opened its doors in 1966, with 107,000-plus taking in a Club America game against Italy's Torino. Official capacity these days is some 87,500, although COVID protocols have reduced that significantly.

Capacity will be capped at 75 per cent for the Canada game but tickets have not been selling well, prompting a two-for-one promotion.

But before the pandemic, thousands and thousands streamed in.

In 2019, a survey by the Pluri Consultancy, a Brazilian company, cited Club America as leading all soccer clubs in North and South American in attendance since 2008 with an average of 41,644 — 21st in the world.

In 1993, 132,000 spectators watched Mexican boxer Julio Cesar Chavez knock out Greg Haugen there. In 1941, 135,000 saw Tony Zale battle Billy Pryor, which attracted 135,000, not been free to enter.

Back in the day, players emerged from their dressing room and climbed a spiral staircase to get to field level.

"You're coming up and if you're at the back of the line, the minute the first guy steps out so the fans can see you, the jeering starts," recalled Bob Lenarduzzi, who played for and coached Canada at Azteca. "With 120,000 people, it's really really loud."

The din starts earlier, however. Lenarduzzi said it was like "walking into a big beehive."

Today, players walk up a long tunnel to the field. The fans, many with horns blaring, watch from near-vertical stands.

"When you get to the field and look up, it's just a massive wall of human beings and concrete … It's kind of claustrophobic. You feel enclosed in a giant cauldron with 104,000 people who are very much not there to support you," U.S. goalkeeper Brad Guzan wrote on the Players Tribune website.

It gets worse once the game begins.

"I remember having to scream at players who were only 10 feet away from me," said former Canadian captain Jason deVos.

The altitude can hit hard for those not used to it. Former Canadian goalkeeper Craig Forrest remembers teammates on IVs after games at Azteca.

The stadium, located in the south of the city some 15 kilometres from the city centre, is home to Club America which is owned by Mexican TV mogul and billionaire Emilio Azcarraga.

Completed by architects Pedro Ramirez Vazquez and Rafael Mijares Alcerreca in time for the 1968 Olympics and 1970 FIFA World Cup, the multi-tiered bowl was originally designed to hold almost 115,000 fans. The architects visited arenas around the globe for their inspiration.

They came up with a soccer fortress. At 7,200 feet above sea level, the air is thin and the sun in hot. Not to mention the smog.

That combination of conditions cause the game to slow down, which suits the patient buildup of the Mexicans, said Los Angeles Galaxy coach Greg Vanney.

"It becomes a very technical game, very tactical in terms of organization," said Vanney, who played at Azteca with the U.S. national team. "And that is really where they dominate."

Azteca is rich in history.

Pele led Brazil to the World Cup there, opening the scoring in a 4-1 victory over Italy in the 1970 final. The Brazilian legend headed home a Rivelino cross and then jumped into Jairzinho's arms for an iconic goal celebration.

Maradona's infamous "Hand of God' goal against England in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal came at Azteca before 114,000 plus. His second goal of the match — a remarkable solo effort that saw him receive the ball in the Argentina half and then dribble through the England defence — was the decider in a 2-1 Argentina win.

U2 and Elton John have played to crowds of 90,000-plus there. Michael Jackson sold out five straight nights. The stadium has also been home to NFL football. Pope John Paul II drew more than 110,000.

On the plus side, Canada has won at Azteca. There were 2-1 victories over Guatemala and Suriname in World Cup qualifiers there in 1977.


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 7, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press