The CONCACAF Gold Cup does not top any list of prestigious international tournaments. That much is certain.
Nevertheless, the competition pits Mexico against the United States in a hotly contested dual for continental (obviously north of Panama) supremacy that has repercussions off the field too.
Football is Mexico’s national sport. It is rare that any other sport is featured as the main story in the daily sports newspapers. Unlike some Caribbean countries that were part of the Spanish empire and then fell under the U.S. sphere of influence and then took to American baseball, Mexico didn’t to the same degree. By the time Cubans and Dominicans were learning the basics of baseball in the late 19th century, Mexicans had already taken to a game brought to Hidalgo state by a group of Cornish (English) miners.
Mexico considers football its sport. There are even theories that versions of the game were actually invented by indigenous groups before the Spanish conquest. (I've spoken to an indigenous sports expert about this and he claimed that it is likely a game similar to football was played in Mexico/Central America; we just haven't found the evidence yet)
That aside, the game became defined as the national sport because it was a way for the country to continually get one over on the United States in an otherwise unbalanced relationship.
"They may be richer, more populous and bigger than us and they may not treat us very well when we go up there to work," went the common Mexican perception. "But how good is it when we beat them at football?"
You probably don’t need to be told that the status quo has changed since then. I don’t know if Mexicans receive a warmer welcome up north, but the United States has developed a strong national team and structured the domestic game. The national team can compete against any team in the world on its day.
The U.S. has now overtaken Mexico in the exportation of players abroad to gain vital experience. The U.S. squad now has 16 players in their 23-man squad playing outside the United States. Mexico has just nine. Mexico finds itself in 28th place in the FIFA rankings, compared to the U.S. in 22nd.
The omens look ominous but where does that leave Mexico?
The team don’t look in bad shape. Indeed Mexico, according to bet365, are favourites to win the Gold Cup at 11/8 (2.38). The U.S. come in at 13/8 (2.63). In other words, there isn’t much between the teams.
Thousands of column inches have been written in praise of Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez this season. He is obviously a big plus for the national team and a potential match-winner. He is also the main focus of fan adoration amongst Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. More importantly in terms of the rivalry, Chicharito is also the kind of player that the United States would love to produce but has thus far failed to do so: a media-friendly, easy-on-the-eye winner. In other words, a global star to pin their hopes onto and raise the profile of the national game. Landon Donovan looked to be getting there but opted to stay in Los Angeles.
The crux of the current Mexican situation on the field though is the agitation surrounding the Mexican players that are around the same age as Chicharito. The Gold Cup is a chance to shine in the shop window for players looking to move from their present clubs: Guillermo Ochoa, Pablo Barrera, Andres Guardado, Aldo de Nigris, Hector Moreno, Angel Reyna, Efrain Juarez and Giovani Dos Santos.
If you exclude de Nigris, the dynamic of the Mexico-U.S. rivalry will be shaped largely to how those players develop over the next few years. Few dare to question their natural talent. Many in the know believe some of the above have more talent than Chicharito but lack the maturity to perform week in, week out. Now is the time for them to step up and follow the Manchester United man's lead.
So, on paper, the U.S. and Mexico go into the Gold Cup seemingly on par despite the U.S.’s steep rise in performance over the last 10-15 years. Which way the dynamic goes in the next 10 years promises to be fascinating.
All the games for this year’s Gold Cup, as in every other edition of the tournament bar the few times Mexico were co-host, will be played in the United States. That is a discernible disadvantage for the other teams. However, in the case of Mexico, it makes little difference.
Mexicans and Mexican-Americans based in the United States will be backing the Tri in their droves. It’s another dimension of the U.S.-Mexico rivalry which continues to dominate, and almost overshadow, the Gold Cup.
The improvement of the U.S., as well as the dominance of both countries, is visibly identifiable when we look as the past winners of the Gold Cup since 1991. Only Canada has bucked the trend. In reverse order the winners are: Mexico, USA, USA, Mexico, USA, Canada, Mexico, Mexico, Mexico, USA