The host of two World Cup finals, is it the greatest stage of all?
Way back in the summer of 1966 in Mexico City, there were some people on the pitch. They weren’t thinking that this was the end of something, rather the start. Stanley Rous, the president of Fifa, looked on as Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, the President of Mexico, took the ceremonial kick-off for a game between the home team Club América and Torino of Italy. Two years earlier Rous had awarded Mexico the right to host the World Cup in 1970. On the referee’s whistle Díaz Ordaz launched the ball forwards with his right foot as Rous and the officials looked on. Mexico had a new national stadium, which would go on to become the very soul of the World Cup. 1966 was a great year for world football. The Azteca was born.
When the world first clapped eyes on the stadium in 1970, it looked as dazzlingly futuristic as something conceived for the set of Star Trek. The old Empire Stadium in Wembley, with its two gaudy, imperialist towers, faraway stands with restricted viewing and a pitch lassoed by a dog track, seemed Mesozoic by comparison. The Azteca was all-seater, holding 107,000 people in two huge, panoramic tiers that towered over the action from an angle so acute as to induce vertigo. The roof soared a mighty 125 yards into the sky. In the Santa Úrsula suburb in which it sat, the altitude turned the air punishingly thin. The Azteca’s pitch was 7,349 feet above sea level. Suitably enough, the action was elevated to a higher plane.
Such opulence does not come cheap. The Azteca cost £7m to knock together, funded by a wheeze from Club América’s president Emilio Azcárraga. Between the two tiers that made up the stadium were wedged almost 900 executive suites, sold to schmoozing corporations on 99-year leases to conjure up the dough for the construction work. In 1970, such a mercenary scam hadn’t dawned on your common or garden football league chairman in the UK. Roy Maurice Keane, who would famously identify the seeping influence of the crustacean-partial clientele that occupied said suites at British grounds, hadn’t even been born yet.
Any contribution the Azteca has made to the corporate stranglehold on football is utterly dwarfed by the legacy that it has provided for the game’s greatest showpiece. With all due respect to the Maracanã, the Monumental, the Stade de France and others, no other host stadium at a World Cup can hold a candle to the Azteca for iconography. It’s not just the house itself but what it has housed that makes the Azteca so special. For cultural worth the stadium deserves to be ranked as inestimable in worth not just by Fifa but also Unesco. For a certain parent/child demographic across the globe, the two World Cups that Mexico hosted in 1970 and 1986 are yours and ours; belonging to very different eras, yet somehow related. Although other stadiums were used across both, the most vivid constant in these experiences is the Estadio Azteca. If you are in said demographic, it hosted the greatest World Cup football of your young life.
In 1970 the World Cup suddenly went all modern – substitutions, yellow and red cards, the magnificent Adidas Telstar Durlast ball plus, the most telling innovation of all, glorious technicolour coverage that blazed through screens, amplified by the throbbing Mexican sunshine. The opening ceremony at the Azteca was beamed to the biggest global audience in the history of the sport, via the same technology that had covered the moon landing less than 12 months earlier. With one flick of a switch, suddenly it felt like the World Cup had left cinemas and news reels behind and now belonged to everyone.
Almost a generation on from that line in the sand, the tournament returned to Mexico 16 years later. The World Cup was a fully monetised machine by 1986, bloated to 24 teams and with fixtures now at the full mercy of television schedules. For the younger audience not weighed down by cynicism it was very heaven; there has never been an easier juncture at which to fall in love with the World Cup. Central to this swooning was the Azteca and its enigmatic ‘black spider’ marking on the pitch. What had been a dot in 1970 was now an arachnid phenomenon. Two (on reflection absurd) urban legends went around the school yards to explain its presence. One suggestion was a helicopter filming the game from above; another was that the marking represented a section of sacred, scorched earth, with origins as inexplicable as Stonehenge, that the stadium could not remove for fear of curse. It was in fact the shadow of a PA system held in place by steel cables high, high above the centre circle, with the effect cast below by the midday sun. Who knew then, or even cared to. As with 1970, the spider would be just another witness to the spectacular.
There have been 836 finals matches in the history of the World Cup, played from Belo Horizonte to Busan. Only 19 of those games have been at the Azteca, yet that tiny sample has provided the amphitheatre for ‘the Game of the Century’, the greatest team goal in World Cup history, one of the biggest controversies in the history of the tournament and ‘the Goal of the Century’. Freakishly high quality, from a tiny quantity.
The first of those claims is probably the most spurious. The West Germany – Italy semi-final in 1970 has been superseded as a spectacle since then, but retains an immense amount of cachet by dint of being the first such legendary, full-colour World Cup fixture on a mass global scale. The relentless drama of the ping-ponging score, exhausted and cramped bodies dropping everywhere and Franz Beckenbauer bravely playing through it all in a sling had riveted the world. The landlords were so impressed that they later unveiled a plaque stating “the Azteca Stadium pays homage to the National Teams of Italy (4) and Germany (3), who starred in the 1970 Fifa World Cup, the ‘Game of the Century’. 17 June 1970.”
Four days later after that match the knackered Italians were thoroughly put away by Brazil, who showcased the greatest team the World Cup had ever seen. Their previous five games had been in Guadalajara; Brazil saved their very best stuff for their one trip to the capital. Carlos Alberto’s goal, finished off after a series of individual flourishes from others in the team, raised the aesthetic bar of World Cup football to a new level. Greeted with a near religious ecstasy in the stadium and virtually canonised since, that goal cemented the legend of its backdrop. The 1970 World Cup, with its greatest hits played out in the Azteca, had been the best of all time.
Although the Azteca’s show-stopping highlights have been provided by guests rather than hosts, Mexico did adorn the stadium with their own moment of genius in 1986. When they beat Bulgaria 2-0 in the second round the opening goal was a stunning scissor-kick effort by Manuel Negrete, finishing off an ensemble effort of keepie-ups and volleys that is a distant cousin of Mario Mandžukić’s goal in the 2017 Champions League final. In many other World Cups, it would win goal of the tournament – but then he stepped in.
Diego Maradona’s residency at the Azteca in the final week of Mexico 86 is taught in week one of the World Cup curriculum. He was unbelievable in every game of that tournament, but truly went through the gears when he arrived in Mexico City. In the quarter-final with England he managed to cause one of the tournament’s biggest controversies and score its greatest individual goal within five minutes of each other; on the BBC commentary, Barry Davies and Jimmy Hill were still establishing blame for the ‘Hand of God’ goal as Maradona set off on his memorable sashay through half of England’s team to score his and Argentina’s second. The inside-right channel he skipped through was the same hallowed patch traversed by Carlos Alberto to add the final touch to his goal in 1970; Maradona’s goal was perhaps even more impressive, as the Azteca pitch in 1986 was a divot-strewn mess.
That quarter-final, with its landmark moments and politically-charged nature due to the Falklands War four years earlier, often overshadows the fact that on the same pitch three days later Maradona was perhaps even more sensational in the semi-final. Two more brilliant goals, the second the radio edit to the album version of his England strike, took care of Belgium and put Argentina in the final. “They don’t know what to do,” cooed John Motson, as Maradona almost completed a hat-trick in front of a now besotted Azteca crowd.
The legend of his performances in Mexico was being established before the tournament had even finished. When he turned up to the stadium for the final, Maradona was invited to unveil a plaque in his honour – it paid tribute to his second goal against England as “the exquisite individual movement of this World Cup”. He was now such a force of nature that Argentina even withstood the implausible-German-comeback-from-two-behind routine in the final and won 3-2. The fans in the Azteca invaded the pitch on the final whistle, just as they had for Pelé and the Brazilians in 1970. Given what they’d seen, the temptation was as beyond them as it would be anyone.
Along with being the focal point for those generation-defining World Cups, the Azteca has become a virtual fortress for the Mexican national team. No one is more aware of this than the United States, as the two wrestle for control of the Concacaf region. The US have failed to register a competitive win there in 45 years. In nine years’ time (subject to Donald Trump torching regional relations further), the two nations plan to link up with Canada to bring the World Cup back to North America. That joint bid for the 2026 World Cup is set to win unopposed when Fifa make their final decision on the hosts next summer. Despite its unparalleled heritage in the competition, the Azteca will only play a minor role in proceedings.
With the tournament expanding to include 48 teams, all three national associations had to combine to cover the logistics. The USA hold the whip hand in this consortium in both volume of appropriate stadiums and reserves of cold hard cash. Of the 80 scheduled games 60 are currently planned to be staged in the United States, including every match from the quarter-finals onwards. The Azteca, with its capacity now reduced to ‘only’ 87,000, will not host the final, defining days of the tournament. For the kids of my generation, that might be a crying shame. If history tells us anything, it’s that at the World Cup the Azteca provides the canvas for something truly extraordinary.