A New Day for (American) Football in Mexico

There used to be a sport more popular in Mexico than soccer. Then something terrible happened

By Robert Andrew Powell

Photography by Rodrigo Cruz

October 27, 2016

Bleacher Report

There’s a space in Mexico City called the Plaza of the Three Cultures. It’s an archeological treasure, common ground for different empires that have occupied Mexico over the centuries. Aztec ruins date back to the ancient city they called Tlatelolco. Looming over the ruins is a Catholic church built by Spaniards, who colonized the country in the 1500s. Finally there’s the skyscraper former home of Mexico’s Department of Foreign Affairs, representing the current state.

Incorporated into the plaza is a wide slate patio, on which a small memorial has been erected. The memorial honors the victims of what’s widely regarded as Mexico’s darkest and bloodiest day. I’m surprised to be standing next to it. I came to Mexico to look at the country’s relationship with football, that most American of sports. Somehow my journey led me here to this plaza, and specifically to this memorial.

In three weeks, the National Football League will play its second-ever regular-season game in Mexico, and the first since 2005. Tickets for the contest between the Oakland Raiders and Houston Texans, to be played in the enormous Estadio Azteca, sold out in minutes. “Expanding our international series of regular-season games to Mexico marks an important step in our continued international growth,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said when the game was announced in February. “We have a tremendous, passionate fanbase in Mexico.”

I’ll admit to not being aware of that. When I’ve thought about Mexico and sports, football never came to mind. I think of soccer, of course, and then baseball. There’s boxing and bullfighting, also the physical theater of lucha libre. Charreada, which is similar to a rodeo, is Mexico’s official national sport. (Which I didn’t know, either.)

I knew that football was played here, but I thought its presence was minor, perhaps on the scale of cricket in the United States. I never realized that in Mexico football was once the most popular university sport. Or that this country’s legendary student uprising of 1968 started at a football game, and ended in gunshots right here in the plaza. Nor did I know that after the Tlatelolco Massacre, as it is called, the government—in an attempt to prevent future student unrest—broke up the most glamorous football program in the country. The game has never quite recovered.

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University of Mexico graduate Hector Castro, 62, is an ardent, longtime Pumas football fan.

“Football was more popular than soccer,” Hector Castro tells me. “Mucho mas! This stadium would be full. They could not fit more people. It was always packed.”

Castro is 62 years old, a medical doctor and a graduate of the University of Mexico, or UNAM. His college, one of the most prestigious schools in Latin America, has long sponsored Pumas, the best-known and most successful football team in the country. I ran into Castro on a warm Saturday in October, when I took in a Pumas game.

I arrived right after kickoff. The opposing team was the Eagles of the University of Chihuahua, from a Mexican state that borders Texas. I lived in Chihuahua a few years ago, so I initially sat on the visitors side of Estadio Olimpico, which is located just off the UNAM campus. Maybe 40 Aguilas fans watched the game with me. Police assigned to protect the fans chatted among themselves. The lone vendor didn’t carry a tray of Cokes or ice cream sandwiches or anything. He simply climbed up to my seat and said if there was anything I wanted, he’d go find it for me.

A cauldron from the 1968 Summer Olympics hovered over my head. I looked down at the rubber track that circles the playing field. A pit adjacent to the track conjured up a famous image of Bob Beamon soaring improbably far in Mexico City’s thin air. Goalposts stapled into the turf for the football game looked temporary and a little rickety, like you might find at an eight-man high school game deep in the Kansas prairie. The players seemed like typical football players, if a bit on the short side. The crowd, mostly Pumas fans sitting on the other side of the bowl, cheered every attempted long pass. That seemed to be the great appeal of the game—long passes.  

The level of play matched the Division III college I attended in Wisconsin. Or maybe it was more like Division II, if I’m being fair. Chihuahua marched out to a 21-3 lead, which surprised me, as I’d never heard about the school’s football team when I lived there. (“It surprised us, too,” Pumas quarterback Rafael Arenas tells me after the game. “They’ve never been very good.”)

The Pumas work out on their practice field on the UNAM campus.

At halftime, I crossed over to the Pumas side, which held a few thousand fans. There was still plenty of room to sit where I wanted. At first I found a thin sliver of shade from the press box, escaping a sun that had my skin crisping. The vendors were more plentiful on the home side, and more aggressive. Hawaiian pizza, lollipops rolled in chili pepper and even cigarettes. No cerveza, though. Unlike at soccer games in Mexico’s top league, beer is forbidden at Pumas games. Football in Mexico is seen as a more family-friendly sport.

        Goya! Goya!

        Cachun, cachun, RAH! RAH!

        Cachun, cachun, RAH! RAH!


A chant I recognized from UNAM’s soccer team rang out after every big play, which usually meant every long pass. Turns out the chant, like most of UNAM’s athletic traditions, started with the football team.

“Football was first,” Castro tells me when I move down closer to the action and introduce myself. He’d stood out as a superfan, sitting in the front row, often leading the Goya! chant. Even in the hot sun he wore a UNAM letterman jacket with leather sleeves. Into the fourth quarter, as Pumas cut into the Chihuahua lead, Castro waved a blue towel overhead to rile up the crowd. It wasn’t quite effective. Pumas came up just short, losing by a field goal, 21-18. A fan with a trumpet bleated out a sad final dirge.

Football came to Mexico in the 1920s, the sport imported from the United States by students returning from American schools. In 1927, two brothers—both fans of Notre Dame—launched the first formal UNAM team. An American expat working for the Ford Motor Company donated helmets and pads. El Irlandes que Lucha didn’t quite work as a nickname, so at first the team went by Los Osos, after the Chicago Bears. Team colors—which became the colors for the whole university—stayed true to South Bend, as did the fight song. Within a few years, a new coach, looking for a mascot more Mexican, selected a jungle cat that was small like his players, and was known to fight to the death. Pumas grew into a national power. No other team in Mexico—not Monterrey Tech, National Polytechnic (IPN) or anyone else—has won as many championships.

So dominant was Pumas in Mexico that the school barnstormed around the United States. On New Year’s Day 1945, UNAM became the first foreign school to play in the Sun Bowl, losing to Southwestern by a score of 35-0. (Pumas finished the game with negative-21 yards of offense.) The rivalry with nearby IPN evolved into El Clasico, Mexico’s biggest game of every year. Estadio Olimpico, which opened in 1946 primarily for football, sold out so steadily, for so many years in a row, that officials ordered up Estadio Azteca, capacity 105,000, in large part to meet the demand. “Football was popular with everyone, but it has always been most popular with the students,” Castro explains to me. “After 1968, that stopped a little.”

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Former UNAM football coach Raul Rivera stands in his office. He had been the Pumas coach for the last seven years before stepping down right before this season.

“1968 is a very important year for Mexico,” says Raul Rivera. He was the Pumas head coach for the past seven years, stepping down right before this season. He still keeps an office on the UNAM campus, where I met up with him a few days after the Chihuahua loss. His old team practiced on a grass field nearby. I could hear the new coach critique pass routes and defensive drills. An American pop song reverberated over a set of loudspeakers.

The walls of Rivera’s office hold dozens of framed pictures and Pumas memorabilia. It’s like a very small hall of fame. There’s a shot of Estadio Olimpico on the day it opened. There’s a blown-up national lottery ticket from four years ago, honoring Pumas football on what was the team’s 85th anniversary. There’s a 2014 newspaper article celebrating a Pumas national championship, when Rivera was still the coach. Tucked away in a corner is a framed photo of an actual puma. Rivera considers himself a historian of his former club. I notice that when we talk about Pumas and football, much of what we discuss has nothing to do with tackles or running backs.

“What happened in 1968 is still fresh. Nobody forgets,” he tells me. “There’s a phrase in Mexico, ‘dos de Octubre, no se olvida.’” October second is not forgotten. “I was born in 1974, six years after it happened, and still I know about it, like everyone in the country. It was something traumatic.”

UNAM in the 1960s was the top public college in Mexico, as it still is. Acceptance was and remains extremely competitive, though those sharp enough to get in pay next to nothing in tuition. Several Mexican presidents attended the school, as have future presidents of Guatemala and Costa Rica. Octavio Paz, the Nobel laureate in literature, is an alumnus, as is Carlos Slim, regularly alternating as either the first- or second-richest person alive. Back then, a few generations after the Mexican Revolution, the country was stable and increasingly prosperous. Many families sent their sons and daughters to college for the first time. Those students who made it into UNAM found themselves at the front of a cultural revolution.

“The life of the campus was amazing,” says Diego Garcia Miravete, a student and football player from 1966 to 1971. “There were no big movements before, then suddenly everything was happening at UNAM. It was a privilege to be a part of it.”

"The most traumatic part was the next day. ... Everybody was expecting questions like, 'What happened? Why did they shoot them? Why are there so many dead?' And yet, nothing."

— Raul Rivera, former Pumas head coach

Revolutionary uprisings were erupting all over the world in 1968. That summer, as Mexico prepared to become the first Latin American country to host an Olympic Games, unrest first emerged on the UNAM campus. It started at a football game.

“At the universities, even at the high schools, it’s the students’ sport,’’ Coach Rivera says of football, echoing the words Hector Castro told me at the game. “Soccer is for everybody, but football is most popular with the students.”

Two high school teams affiliated with UNAM and its big rival IPN played each other in late July 1968.  After the game, a fight broke out among fans. The fight itself has been described as no particular big deal. The government’s response, though, felt like overkill. Riot police barricaded students inside UNAM’s high school, holding them captive for days. One officer discharged a bazooka, obliterating a door that had been hand-carved in the 18th century.

The UNAM student body rallied against the police aggression. The rector of the university joined the cause, lowering flags to half-mast and referring to the trapped students as political prisoners. The UNAM campus emptied into the streets, marchers shouting “Unete pueblo!” People unite!

Into August, the movement’s leaders found their voice. They demanded the release of political prisoners, the abolition of the riot police and other liberal reforms. When the demands were not met, students chanted insults at President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, which had never been done; Mexican presidents had always been treated with reverence. Marching into El Zocalo, the capital’s main square and the symbolic center of the country, the students vowed to stay overnight, or stay for a week, if that’s what it took. President Diaz Ordaz responded with tanks, first in the main square, then eventually onto the UNAM campus, which he shut down.

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A woman reads the inscription on the memorial in Mexico City to those who died in the Tlatelolco Massacre. (Getty Images)

By October 2, with the Olympics about to start, Diaz Ordaz warned that he had tolerated student criticism, but “todo tiene un limite.” Everything has a limit. Grainy footage of a student rally in the Plaza of the Three Cultures shows young children in the crowd that day, and at least one pet dog. From a third-story terrace in an apartment building that fronts the plaza, students aired their grievances. Armed troops massed in the ruins of the old Aztec city. A military helicopter twirled overhead. When a flare dropped from the helicopter onto the plaza, the crowd scattered in confusion. Then the shots rang out.

It’s still unclear exactly what happened. The general consensus, all these years later, is that the first shots came from snipers planted by the government, and that the bullets were intended to spook the troops on the ground. Those troops fired back, striking one student after another. A low estimate counted maybe 40 dead. Other estimates start at 300 people killed, with the true number possibly much higher. (Remains of massacre victims have been discovered as recently as 2007.) Films show bodies falling onto the plaza’s slate tiles. And then more bodies. And then more bodies still.

“The most traumatic part was the next day,” says Rivera. “The main TV news in Mexico started with an announcement that Mexico is waking up to a sunny day. Nobody said anything! Everybody was expecting questions like, ‘What happened? Why did they shoot them? Why are there so many dead?’ And yet, nothing.”

The massacre at Tlatelolco effectively ended Mexico’s student movement. Ten days later, at Estadio Olimpico, President Diaz Ordaz opened the Summer Games. Volunteers released thousands of doves in a symbolic reference to the Games’ theme, which was peace.

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The 1968 football season was canceled across Mexico. In 1969 UNAM tried to field a team but other universities declined to play them. A year after that, in 1970, Pumas players were divided into three separate squads, to dilute their talent. The games of those three teams were monitored closely by the government. Garcia Miravete, the former player, tells me rowdy “fans” were planted in the stands to disrupt the games, to steal wallets and purses, to smash stuff and make the stadiums unattractive places to spend an afternoon. Castro, the doctor and Pumas fan, tells me the same thing, as do several histories I’ve read.  

“They didn’t want the students to get together, so they tried to disrupt football,” Castro says. “There was still that taboo linked to football, because of what happened in ‘68.”

UNAM football players didn’t unite again as one team until 30 years after the massacre, in 1998.

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UNAM Pumas football gear lines the wall of the team's training facility.

I visit the Plaza of the Three Cultures on a bright afternoon, a couple of days after the massacre’s 48-year anniversary. Orange flowers arranged in a semicircle dry on the patio’s slate tiles, in front of the memorial. People still rally at the plaza every October 2. Wax from candles placed during the rally has melted into a giant soup and is starting to liquefy again in the direct sun. An entrepreneurial guitarist has stacked a few of his CDs next to the memorial. Between songs, he shares the history of the plaza with a family of tourists from China.

The memorial looks a little beat up; it was built 23 years ago. It’s a stack of stone blocks, straight up like a wall. One top corner looks like it’s been blasted with gunpowder, or perhaps lightning. There’s a stone missing on the back side, where I’m guessing there used to be a bronze plaque. On the front, in raised letters, are the names and ages of some of the confirmed victims of the massacre. Leonardo Perez Gonzalez, 29 anos. Guillermo Rivera Torres, 15 anos. Rosalino Martin Villanueva, with a question mark because his age was never determined.

"There was still that taboo linked to football, because of what happened in '68."

— Hector Castro, University of Mexico graduate

Over on the apartment building, below the terrace where the student leaders spoke, someone’s painted a mural of former President Diaz Ordaz. He’s a caricature in the mural, his horn-rimmed glasses oversized, his ears elephantine. Like a rebel, he wears a bandana around his head imprinted with the words “No se olvidara.” Do not forget. The massacre indeed remains fresh.

Football in Mexico was wounded by the crackdown on the student movement, but it survived. It’s even gaining momentum. I spent a Sunday in a bar near El Zocalo watching Tom Brady thrill a group of Patriots fans. When the game ended and I stepped back onto the street, I found an ice cream shop selling sundaes served in little plastic helmets of the Chargers or Raiders or Broncos. A domestic professional league has started up, with six teams so far, all of them sporting their own cool helmets. And of course, the NFL is coming to the Azteca.

“It’s getting more popular, yeah,” says Arenas, the Pumas quarterback. He hesitates for a second, then looks at me in a way that’s almost bashful. “But it’ll never be as big as soccer.”

Members of this year's Pumas jog onto the field before a recent practice.

It once was. Garcia Miravete, a linebacker in his day, recalls his time at UNAM with nostalgia, and also some bitterness. He played in a golden age of football in Mexico. El Clasico against IPN broadcast on television, the big game even featured in movies. He and his teammates enjoyed the national spotlight, much the way Mexico’s top soccer players do today.

“Games were on Saturdays at 4 p.m., the magic hour,” he says. “Tickets would always sell out in just a couple days, and on Saturdays the seats started to be occupied at 10 a.m. Fans would play dominoes and chess while they waited for kickoff. The sport was an important center of attention. In politics and even in the arts. Mexican stars often came to the fields to watch games. The president of Mexico used to show up to celebrate the first game of the season.”

I’ve seen a picture of President Diaz Ordaz at a Pumas game. In the photo, he’s on the field at Estadio Olimpico, standing next to some players, everybody smiling as they exchange gifts in a pregame ceremony. He used to be down with UNAM football. That didn’t last for long.

I talked to a lot of people in Mexico. I’ve since read everything I can find on the summer of 1968, and watched a half-dozen documentary films. Everyone describes the former president as “patriarchal” and “authoritarian.” He censored rock music during his tenure. His police cut the long hair off boys walking down the street. The Olympic Games of 1968 were to be a coming-out party, his chance to show that Mexico was modern, a first-world nation. Nothing was going to disrupt the Games. So strong was his desire for order that, among all his efforts to crush the student uprising, he actively disrupted football. Of all things.

It seems incredible, maybe even laughable, that he might have felt threatened by a sport. Is this a joke? Are you joking? Yet I’ve seen how far Diaz Ordaz and his government went to maintain control. Standing at this memorial, thinking about what happened here and everything that led to it, laughing is the last thing I feel like doing.

Robert Andrew Powell is the author of three books, including This Love Is Not For Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juarez and We Own This Game about football, politics and race in Miami, where he lives.

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