Dono­van even­tu­ally ap­pre­ci­ated his big ri­vals ... and vice versa


Dear Mex­ico: Lan­don Dono­van would like to apol­o­gize.

Al­though the great­est player in U.S. soc­cer his­tory grew up in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, where he learned Span­ish by play­ing against Mex­i­can Amer­i­can kids, he says he had lit­tle un­der­stand­ing of the im­por­tance Mex­i­cans place on the U.S.-Mex­ico ri­valry.

So when, as an 18-year-old, he scored the goal that beat Mex­ico in his first in­ter­na­tional cap, he fig­ured, how big can th­ese games be?

“I didn’t re­al­ize the ex­tent of the ri­valry early on. And I didn’t, es­pe­cially, re­al­ize what it meant to the Mex­i­can peo­ple,” Dono­van says. “So I ran my mouth a lot and said a lot of stupid things. And I re­gret that.

“I should have had more re­spect for the peo­ple and the play­ers and the ri­valry. As I got older, I re­al­ized that.”

With age, af­ter all, comes wis­dom. And while Dono­van, at 35, is hardly old, he has grown wise enough to now rank the U.S.-Mex­ico ri­valry, which re­sumes Sun­day in Mex­ico City, along­side Ger­many-Hol­land, Ar­gentina-Brazil and Italy-France as one of the best in in­ter­na­tional soc­cer.

“What makes a ri­valry spe­cial and great is the feel­ing around it,” he says. “And the feel­ing around that game — the at­mos­phere, the

buildup, the me­dia at­ten­tion — are all the same as they are in any of those other ri­val­ries.”

Es­pe­cially when there’s some­thing at stake, as there will be in Sun­day’s game, a World Cup qual­i­fier. With a vic­tory, Mex­ico, un­beaten half­way through the fi­nal round of qual­i­fy­ing, will all but clinch a spot in next sum­mer’s tour­na­ment in Rus­sia while mov­ing a gi­ant step closer to win­ning the CONCACAF com­pe­ti­tion for the first time in 20 years.

For the U.S., mean­while, a loss would slow a team that is un­beaten this year, hav­ing jumped from last to third in the six-team tour­na­ment since March.

The ri­valry wasn’t al­ways a ri­valry, though. In fact, un­til 1997, U.S. ver­sus Mex­ico wasn’t even much of a game. Al­though the Amer­i­cans won the first match, in 1934, it wasn’t un­til 1980 that they won again. And en­ter­ing World Cup qual­i­fy­ing in 1997, Mex­ico led the se­ries 24-5-7.

But that year, the U.S. played Mex­ico to a pair of draws, in­clud­ing a score­less tie in Mex­ico City that ended a 15-game los­ing streak there. Three years later came the 2-0 vic­tory Dono­van en­gi­neered in his in­ter­na­tional de­but, and two years af­ter that, Dono­van scored in another 2-0 win — this time in the 2002 World Cup — and the Bor­der War be­gan to take shape.

“That, I think, was one of the big­ger mo­ments that re­ally took it to another level, that so­lid­i­fied it as ‘OK, this is go­ing to be a ri­valry of the ages,’ ” says Cobi Jones, who also was on that World Cup team. “Yes there’s more his­tory with a lot of other [ri­val­ries]. But this one has in­ten­si­fied.”

It in­ten­si­fied when Mex­ico’s Rafa Mar­quez felled Jones with a head-butt in the wan­ing mo­ments of that World Cup game, earn­ing a red card and a multi­game sus­pen­sion. It in­ten­si­fied when U.S. de­fender Oguchi Onyewu stared down Mex­ico’s Jared Bor­getti in a 2005 qual­i­fier in Columbus, Ohio, and when Mex­i­can as­sis­tant Francisco Ramirez de­liv­ered a slap at­tack on U.S. de­fender Frankie He­j­duk fol­low­ing a 2009 qual­i­fier.

There also was the knee Mex­ico’s Ra­mon Ramirez de­liv­ered to the man­hood of Amer­i­can de­fender Alexi Lalas in a not-sofriendly friendly at the Rose Bowl and the time Dono­van — and a num­ber of team­mates — re­lieved them­selves on a prac­tice field in Guadala­jara.

(Dono­van in­sists that last in­ci­dent took place only af­ter sta­dium work­ers locked the U.S. play­ers out of the locker room and pub­lic re­strooms.)

That new­found in­ten­sity swung the ri­valry in the Amer­i­cans’ fa­vor, though, with Mex­ico win­ning just six of 19 games since that 2002 World Cup match. Even Es­ta­dio Azteca has lost its mojo, with the U.S. es­cap­ing with a win and a draw in its last two vis­its there.

“It’s ebbed and it’s flowed over the years,” Dono­van says. “But then, par­tic­u­larly af­ter that World Cup game, it was re­ally nasty.

“As you get older, you ap­pre­ci­ate it more. At the end of my ca­reer, all th­ese guys that were vil­lains, I ended up hav­ing so much re­spect for.”

And Mex­ico ended up hav­ing re­spect for Dono­van. Sure, he was the U.S. player Mex­i­cans hated the most, the one who was pelted with beer bot­tles, bat­ter­ies and even plas­tic bags filled with urine. But Mex­i­cans hated him be­cause he was good, and when they couldn’t in­tim­i­date him, they grew to ap­pre­ci­ate him — so much so that Mex­i­can TV gi­ant Tele­visa fea­tured him in a com­mer­cial for a soc­cer-themed lottery.

Mex­ico fans also liked the fact he spoke to them in Span­ish. So as Dono­van ma­tured, so did the ri­valry.

“I got thrown into the ri­valry with­out know­ing [the ri­valry],” says Dono­van, who re­mains the U.S. record-holder for goals and as­sists. “But then, I was for­tu­nate to be a part of some un­be­liev­able games, both here and in Mex­ico — just nu­mer­ous, in­cred­i­ble games.

“It’s as big as any other ri­valry in the soc­cer world. And that’s what makes it so spe­cial for all of us.”

Don­ald Mi­ralle Getty Images

THE PO­LICE ARE pro­tected by riot shields, but U.S. star Lan­don Dono­van stands alone as he is pelted with cups of wa­ter, beer and other items as he at­tempts a cor­ner kick dur­ing a World Cup qual­i­fy­ing match at Mex­ico City’s Azteca Sta­dium in 2009.

Vin­cent Yu As­so­ci­ated Press

DONO­VAN HEADS the ball past Mex­ico goal­keeper Os­car Perez for a goal in the 2-0 U.S. vic­tory in the 2002 World Cup.

John Biever Sports Il­lus­trated/Getty Images

LAN­DON DONO­VAN WEARS the flag with pride af­ter the U.S. de­feated Mex­ico 2-1 in the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup fi­nal at Chicago’s Sol­dier Field. “I was for­tu­nate to be a part of some un­be­liev­able games, both here and in Mex­ico,” Dono­van said.

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