MEXICO CITY – The national anthem was played for decades at National Football League games without much incident or discussion but 2016 has changed all that, starting with Colin Kaepernick’s preseason protest.
If the anthem controversy has lost a little steam in recent weeks with Kaepernick's taking a knee only having been joined by a handful of other players, Monday night’s game in Mexico City between the Oakland Raiders and Houston Texans could add a new dimension to the conversation.
“I am ready,” Hector Diaz, 24, said, as he made preparations to attend Monday’s game at the cavernous Azteca Stadium with a group of friends. “When they play the anthem … I am going to boo.”
For sure there are conflicted feelings in Mexico about their neighbors to the north following the presidential campaign and last week's election of Donald Trump. In addition to wanting to build a wall along the border — and insisting Mexico pay for it — Trump has called Mexicans migrating to the U.S. criminals and racists.
No one is quite certain how feelings about the president-elect will manifest themselves Monday when the Star Spangled Banner is played before the NFL’s first regular season excursion into Mexico since 2005.
“I will be at the game and I think some people will boo (the anthem),” Stephen Sanchez, a Raiders fan who will travel from his home in Monterrey, in northern Mexico, said. “People will maybe feel there is even more reason to now.”
When the U.S. soccer has played at Azteca Stadium for World Cup qualifying games in recent years, the anthem has been routinely jeered by virtually the entire crowd.
At major boxing events in the U.S. featuring Mexican fighters such as Juan Manuel Marquez or Canelo Alvarez, there has been a similar response.
“The booing of the national anthem is actually a misconstrued way of them celebrating their own anthem," said former U.S. soccer player Eric Wynalda. "I’ve played many times against Mexico, and I think it’s just part of the rivalry.”
By their nature, the growing numbers of American football fans in Mexico have at least some affinity for the U.S., if only an appreciation for the national sport.
“In Mexico, two sentiments co-exist,” historian Raul Figueroa Esquer, a professor at Mexico’s National Autonomous Institute of Technology, said. “One historical sentiment, which has an anti-American (basis). At the same time, there is a sentiment of admiration for the most powerful, or one of the most powerful countries in the world.
“(Trump) has had an effect by making negative comments, calling (Mexican people) rapists. It is frankly painful that he makes menacing claims about building a stronger wall and having Mexico pay for it.”
Kaepernick’s gesture, intended as a protest of social injustices, has a divided opinion in the U.S., with many outraged by the actions of the San Francisco 49ers quarterback and other players, but a large number also supporting his right to freedom of speech and expression.
However, outright booing may be seen different.
“Here is the funny thing, I love America and I go there all the time,” Diaz said. “When it is a soccer game it just means we want to beat your team. This time, I will be booing the bad parts of America. Trump, intolerance, racism, how some people feel towards Mexicans. But I still love American football, and yes, I still love America.”
In Mexico, there is a clear class and wealth divide between the hardcore supporters of major soccer teams and fans of the NFL. American football, according to marketing expert Manuel Juarez, is very much a middle class game, while soccer is the sport of the masses.
“I really don’t think and I would not expect the Mexican people would boo when the U.S. national anthem would be sung or played (for the NFL game),” Juarez said. “I really don’t. It is kind of a different audience than the soccer fans. Sorry, but that’s true. (Different) education, socio-economic level.”
Alejandro Morales Troncoso, an author and Mexico’s leading American football historian, hopes Monday night’s game can help bridge the political divide.
“We are brothers and thankfully we are only separated by a line,” Troncoso said.
As for the message he wants the Mexican fans to send to the NFL and its visiting teams? “You are welcome, neighbor,” he added.