iudad Juarez, Mexico, seemed a curious choice when it was named host city for CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying
. After Canada turned down the chance to host the tournament last fall, for monetary reasons, the games were rumored to be headed to Haiti, where the region’s first qualifying tournament for the 1986 World Cup
was held before large, enthusiastic crowds. Chihuahua, Mexico was named host earlier this year until its stadium's artificial turf was deemed inadequate. Finally, Ciudad Juarez was selected as a replacement venue.
Cynics mumbled that CONCACAF had managed to find a city that rivaled Port-of-Prince’s general instability and safety concerns! A deadly drug war over the city’s lucrative illegal transit routes to the US, erupted recently between two Mexican cartels and splinter groups, including defectors from the Mexican military. Two weeks ago 33 bodies were found in the backyard of a drug house, pushing the death toll in 2008 to over 200. Juarez also was plagued by violent, fatal attacks on women and children in the early 1990’s.
Juarez’s potential to draw American fans across the border from neighboring El Paso, Texas was severely curtailed by the latest difficulties. The stadium was only a few thousand meters from the Rio Grande and within walking distance of a border crossing yet family and friends of the US team were discouraged from attending the event, even though they weren't available on American TV. For the US Semifinal and Final victories over Costa Rica and Canada respectively, American fans, typically easy to spot, were seldom seen. Canadians were not deterred by the threats and far outnumbering Americans on both nights.
Concerns that Mexican fans would be hostile couldn't be farther from the truth as players raved about large, passionate crowds, particularly for the final First-round doubleheader including Mexico and the US, which drew a sellout of 22,000. The Semifinals drew 19,000 on a very windy evening while the Final and third place matches drew just under 5,000 — after the Olympic spots had been determined.
Having watched Mexican national team and club games since Canada's only World Cup appearance in 1986, I thought the atmosphere was typical Mexican events — fun, vibrant and festive. It’s very different from the often understated atmosphere at games in Canada or the US, and that’s what makes it special. Mexican fans enjoy turning a match into an occasion. Canadian coach Even Pellerud said after the tournament, “With all the concerns before the games, the problems in the media reports, my team was very positive and surprised by the stadium, the service and the very friendly and enthusiastic crowds.” Furthermore Pellerud felt that this tournament “had a much higher standard than... Costa Rica. The players were much better, the organization by CONCACAF was much better… Most of the teams did progress. It’s not just the USA and Canada anymore [that are competitive] but Mexico and Costa Rica and good athletes coming from those countries.”
Team leading scorer Melissa Tancredi echoed her coach, “I’ve been impressed [by Juarez]. The organization and safety have been great. It feels good to play in a place like this. I felt safe, I felt good, it was really well done.”
A US college women’s soccer coach was in El Paso for a spring tournament, and despite the warnings by the US government, took his players to see the finals. Well traveled himself, he said that he likes to expose his players to international experiences whenever he can, noting that his team had a great time and were treated very well by the Mexican fans. An El Paso-based reporter claimed, “Juarez is only unsafe if you are a drug dealer.”
At the end of the day this tournament had everything; great crowds, exciting soccer, the importance of Beijing Olympic spots at stake and friendly people. Those that stayed away missed a tremendous advertisement for women’s soccer.