A steady stream of green, red, and white flows into the bar of Oyamel Cocina Mexicana, a José Andrés-led Mexican restaurant on 7th Street NW. Bodies huddle around the bar to watch the only television. El Tri, the nickname for the Mexican soccer team, has arrived. More and more green comes into Oyamel, like a tide rushing in.
The fans scream and clap when the Mexican national anthem finishes. An Oyamel staff member turns the television volume up to 85. They scream and clap some more.
It’s almost time for Mexico to take on South Korea in the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
“Oh, vamos!” Zoleiry Hernandez yells. The tension is thick from the start of the game. Everyone is holding their breath. They vibrate and move as one body while they watch, hands over mouths.
This is Mexico’s second game in the group stage, following the team’s thunderous win over defending champion Germany that shook the football world. Few believed it could happen. Commentator and former professional player Craig Burley sat on an ESPN broadcast and said of Mexico, “This is not a good team.”
But the Mexico fans always had faith. After beating Germany, 1-0, the team proved that their loyalty was warranted. And on Wednesday, Mexico and Sweden advanced to the round of 16. Hernandez never had a doubt.
“I believed in Mexico from the start,” she says. “Every time we have the ball it’s so emotional. Knowing that everyone supports this one team together.” Hernandez, 24, attends George Washington University for graduate studies in international affairs. Her family is originally from Mexico City. She smiles when footage of thousands celebrating in Mexico City is shown on screen. It’s where her family celebrates in the main square of Zócalo.
The World Cup is a joyous event for Mexican fans, but not one without somber notes this year. The humanitarian crisis at Mexico’s border is not far from anyone’s mind. “What’s happening at the border is incredibly sad,” says Jorge Treviño, 54. “The detention centers, it’s just heartbreaking.” He has been in the U.S. since he was college aged and now lives a few blocks from Oyamel, but originally he’s from a little Mexican town called Matamoros, right under Texas. He was back home just a few weeks ago.
There must always be a balance, says Hernandez, of joy and pain. Politicizing the World Cup may not be ideal for some, but it’s necessary, she adds. In her mind, wide support of this team could prompt others to focus on the things that really matter.
“Sports in general, but in this specific case soccer, is a cathartic factor for Mexican society,” says José Antonio Zabalgoitia, deputy chief of mission at the Mexican Embassy. “As a society, we have so many challenges and we work so hard to move forward in confronting them, that success in the World Cup produces enormous national pride and it translates into self-confidence. It is also an example that we need to perform better in those areas where we have the most difficult challenges, like in alleviating poverty, or fighting crime and violence.”
Mexico has appeared in the World Cup 16 times, and El Tri has survived the group stage in every World Cup it has competed in since 1986. But in its last six World Cups, the team has been eliminated from the round of 16 and has not made it to el quinto partido—the fifth game. It is now widely believed that the team is cursed, doomed not to make the quarterfinals.
This year it could be different. Mexico was the first CONCACAF, the Confederation of North, Central American, and Caribbean Association Football, side to qualify for the 2018 cup. The win against Germany was resounding, and a win against South Korea today would add fuel to Mexico’s fire.
The game against South Korea is still scoreless in the 21st minute when a shot on goal by winger Son Heung-min goes awry. The crowd at Oyamel releases a collective breath. Then, in the next minute, the certain hands of Mexico’s goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa make a fantastic save. The dam threatens to break with jubilation.
Mexican forward Carlos Vela lines up for a penalty kick in the 25th minute. He shoots toward the right corner. He scores. Goal. The dam breaks. It’s an earthquake that reverberates throughout all of Oyamel. Chanting begins. “Mexico!” Clap. Clap. Clap. “Mexico!” Clap. Clap. Clap. “Mexico!” Clap. Clap. Clap.
Brenda Acevedo, 26, is in town for a few days from Philadelphia. She was born and raised in Mexico City. She thinks this team can finally make it to the semifinals. “We are strong this year,” she says, apologizing for her English. She speaks it better than many native speakers.
She prays for another win today. “I think it gives us hope,” she says. “Everything can be so sad but when Mexico plays, everyone is together. Families get together, friends get together. It’s like a party.”
El Tri has found supporters everywhere, from one of the game’s best ever players Diego Maradona to U.S. soccer star Landon Donovan, much to the disdain of his former teammates who refuse to root for their rivals.
Tim Douglas, who works for the Air Force, is a U.S. native rooting for the Mexican national team. “You can just feel the excitement in the air here, right?” he asks. Despite the United States’ absence from the competition, he’s still got a team to support. And, as he sips from his drink, he’s having a great time doing it. “The political tension between our two countries has just become unbelievable with this administration. It’s good to show this unification. I think if they advance, a lot of Americans will stand behind them.”
Acevedo’s husband, Matt Robbins, 34, has also noticed an increase in support for Mexico. He has no doubts about the reasons. To him, rooting for Mexico, in the smallest of ways, consciously or subconsciously, is a rebellion against President Donald Trump and his administration.
“I think that if you look at our environment with the president and the policies coming out, there’s such an opposition,” he says. “You can really rally behind this national team. You can show you don’t agree with the policies, that you agree with human rights.”
Robbins is invested, but quieter and calm—the opposite of his wife. Around the 65th minute, Mexico scores again. This time it’s striker Chicharito, and another expression of unbridled joy erupts. Acevedo is now standing on a chair screaming. Everyone inhales again, hoping Mexico can hold on.
Treviño can barely be pulled away from the television to speak. He fidgets nervously, but he insists he’s not stressed. He’s enjoying it. “How can you not?” he asks.
He opens up more when there’s a small break in the action. “The first game was amazing—” he says, cutting himself off, his eyes glued to the television. He tries again in vain to speak. “Ay!” he screams as time winds down on the game.
“Right now, everybody’s worried and excited about the Mexican [presidential] election that’s going to happen,” Treviño says. “There’s a wave of change, like always, and a lot of controversy with the candidates. But I think there’s a lot to celebrate if Mexico continues to win.”
He can’t be bothered to speak more, not while the game is waning. Three more minutes and then stoppage time. At this point, Mexico has a 2 to 1 lead on South Korea. Treviño, along with every other fan in the bar, is waiting to shout in celebration.
When the game ends after 95 minutes and Mexico’s fate is sealed, the shouting begins. They’ve won. The tide of green, red, and white rushes out. Soon regular customers come in to replace the Mexico fans. But the aftershocks of the quake still reverberate.