Football in Mexico has recently enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with another great national passion. This is now under severe threat. Martin del Palacio Langer explains

When, in March, the International Board – FIFA’s rule making body – banned players from wearing masks during matches, the footballing world barely batted an eyelid. After all, only a couple of players had ever done it in international matches, notably Ecuadorian Iván Kaviedes at the 2006 World Cup.

In Mexico, however, this was the end for a long-standing tradition that had already generated a fair amount of controversy. By far the most popular Mexican sports, and the only two broadcast live on national television, are football and wrestling. Ratings for bouts of Lucha Libre (professional Mexican wrestling) are only very slightly behind those of an average first division match. Each sport has taken elements from the other to generate more interest for the ever-growing audience.

Televisa, the biggest television station in Latin America, owns Mexico City’s football giants América, as well as the AAA wrestling league, the home of the country’s best fighters. Or actors, depending on your point of view. Unlike American football, played by the upper classes, or baseball, only popular in a few regions of the country, the general perception in Mexico is that football and wrestling are “sports of the people”.

In the past, it was always wrestling that was more influenced by football rather than the other way round. Fighters’ names and colours were often inspired by the nicknames of football teams. For example, the wrestling bout between “Super Águila” and “The Powerful Chiva” emulated the national football derby between América, known as Águilas (eagles), and the most popular provincial club, Guadalajara, the Chivas (goats). In 2004, however, the trend started to move the other way; wrestlers visited football training grounds and friendships developed. A Cruz Azul player, Argentinian Gabriel Pereyra, came up with the idea of celebrating a goal by putting on the mask of his friend, “El Místico”. The team’s fans soon began to buy masks and before long the stands at the Estadio Azul were brimming with masked supporters. Outside the stadiums, unofficial stalls offered all kinds of wrestling-style masks alongside the more traditional football shirts and scarves.

Soon virtually every player had their alter ego from the world of wrestling; Jaguares de Chiapas goalkeeper Omar Ortiz celebrated victories by putting on a mask and gesturing towards the jubilant fans at the final whistle. During the last World Cup, Mexico striker Francisco Fonseca took to the streets of Nuremberg to celebrate the team’s win over Iran. Nobody recognised the former Benfica player as he ran through the city, accompanied by his family and flanked by thousands of joyous Mexican fans. The symbiosis was complete.

But in September 2006, Mexico’s disciplinary committee decided, without any convincing explanation, to ban the use of masks by footballers. The players were furious and the story became a major talking point for several weeks. Pereyra was the first to protest: “However much I analyse it, I can’t find a reason. Maybe they just don’t like wrestling.” On the wrestling side, the anger was equally tangible. “Blue Demon Jr”, one of the country’s most renowned fighters, echoed public opinion: “I think this is a really stupid way of thinking. Wearing the masks has become part of the joy of football and they are taking that away.”

There were calls for resistance, with thousands of fans wearing masks at matches to protest against the decision, but to no avail. From January 2007 the disciplinary commission also banned the wearing of masks in the stands, supposedly for security reasons. Apparently, some barras bravas (hooligans) had taken advantage of the masks to escape police attention.

The International Board’s resolution was nothing more than the final blow in a controversy that has left both footballers and wrestlers perplexed. “Blue Demon Jr” remains indignant: “They don’t realise that by implementing these measures they are taking away part of the Mexican culture from our football. Now the players won’t be able to put on a Moctezuma feather hat or anything else representative of the country.” Unmasked, Mexican football will never be the same again.

From WSC 244 June 2007. What was happening this month

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