Jumping The US-Mexico Border With The Gringo Xolo

As there is no top-flight team in San Diego, thousands of US soccer fans travel week after week to one of the world’s most dangerous cities: Tijuana, Mexico.

On the other side of the border there are dead bodies hanging from the trees, they say. Sometimes they find the bodies in dumpsters tied up with duct tape and with machetes in their hearts, while the murderers stand around on the street corner, smiling as they pick taco remains from the corner of their mouth.

On a trip to the USA you can even get a first dose of such hysteria sitting on the plane. Row 37, seat E. Sitting comfortably with a glass of tomato juice in your hand. On this Tuesday evening, for example, somewhere over Denver or Las Vegas, two American college boys are sitting in row 38, wildly bandying about old statistics and third-hand anecdotes. Tijuana, they say, was one of the most dangerous cities in the world in 2009, with 72 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. They talk about drug cartel boss Teodoro ‘El Teo’ Garcia Simental, who used to have his rivals beheaded and dissolved in acid. And about Jorge Hank Rhon, the mad millionaire from Tijuana, who was caught in 1995 with twelve suitcases full of the skins of endangered species and who was taken into custody in 2011, because the police found 40 guns, 48 hand grenades, 9,298 bullets and 70 ammunition belts in his house. Anyone taking Californian Interstate 5 south across the border, therefore has to be pretty crazy. Or one of the world-weary football fans from the USA, who some time ago made the Xolos de Tijuana, Hank Rhon’s little plaything, their new home team. The college boys lean forward: “You really want to go there?”

Conversations like this can be unsettling, no matter who is speaking: two students, a politician or a TV reporter. But perhaps you have to them at least once in order to understand it all. This story of the Xolos and their special supporters from the USA. This story of fear and borders, but also of friendship and coming together. One that says a lot about the uniting power of football, yet just as much about American society. One that tells of way-out, adventurous characters. Of guys like Marty Albert and Roberto Cornejo. It begins on a sunny day in late February, 20 miles north of Tijuana.

Over there, in downtown San Diego, the sidewalks are so clean that you probably ought to clean your shoes before leaving your hotel. Even the graffiti looks as if someone has sprayed it on using a ruler. Marty Albert, probably San Diego’s biggest football fan, lives in Ocean Beach, an area right on the coast. A place where people wear flip-flops and sunglasses and play on skateboards and surfboards. A place where the sun always shines, even when it rains. And also where nobody is bothered by Donald Trump bawling into a microphone on a pub’s TV. Maybe he’s again on about the wall that he wants to build along the border strip. Perhaps he’s calling Mexicans rapists and drug dealers again. Last time, one of his speeches like this was followed by Neil Young’s ‘Rockin’ the Free World’. This time all you see is his mouth moving diametrically to his hairdo. The sound is switched off. “A freak!” says Marty. “If he wins, at least we’d have something to laugh about.”

Marty Albert is 47 and looks as though he has aged along with his favourite skateboard magazine from the early nineties: baseball cap, sagging jeans, a few wrinkles around the eyes and specks of grey in his hair. He’s just been surfing. The waves were average. Lots of white water. Now, however, he wants to talk about the Xolos, perhaps the greatest love of his life.

It began sometime in 2011. Mexican workmates had waxed lyrical to him about this club on the other side of the border and Marty was enthralled right away. When he finally got to sit in the Estadio Caliente, it was totally different to American football or baseball. The beer was served by busty women, bands with tubas and trumpets played furiously in a chaotic mix at the entrances and whenever the opposition goalkeeper took a goal-kick everyone cried: “Hijo de puta!” Son of a whore! Perhaps Marty fell for this place so quickly because he had always been one of those sorts that in the USA they call outgoing. An extrovert type of guy, positive until the bitter end. Somebody who, despite the endless summer in Ocean Beach, was trapped in an introvert country that for years has been increasingly withdrawing in on itself.

In 1995, Marty had travelled around Europe and fell in love with the colourful tifos of Inter Milan. In the USA, however, he remained a football fan in exile, even if he did occasionally go to L.A. Galaxy. Only in late 2011, more than 16 years later, when he entered the Estadio Caliente did it again feel like it used to be in the San Siro. He hardly looked at the pitch. Just at the ultras instead. Their name alone promised a thrilling new world: ‘La Masakre’.

“I want to go in there,” he said to a friend. His mate replied: “They’ll drub your white arse out of the stadium!” After a few beers, they summed up courage in time for the second half. At the entrance to the ‘Masakre’ block a steward stepped across their path. “Operta la pu­-erta por favor”, said Marty in broken Spanish. The steward asked who on earth he was and Marty answered: “Yo soy gringo Xolos.” And even though the sentence syntax was wrong, they were let in. “Hopefully you won’t die,” said the steward, as they walked past, but the gringo simply went on into the foreign territory like a child that asks why such a thing as war even exists.

He sang along to the words that he understood and when he hugged the Mexicans and said he was having the best time of his life, they put their skepticism aside. It was like a totally new beginning, the start of a wonderful friendship.

The next day Marty got himself a season ticket. Ten mates followed suit. He founded the ‘Gringos Xolos’ fan club and since then has been to every home game. Month by month the number of Americans grows. The club reckons that 20 to 25 percent of the crowd in the Estadio Caliente, so up to 8,000 fans, come from the San Diego region. Many of them have Mexican roots. Others, like Marty, are familiar with Tijuana because they had always been inquisitive and in the past too had been there for weddings of ‘El Teo’, surfing in Baja California or fishing. Some, however, are totally new: white Americans who have grown up with all the horror stories and now come because Marty or other fans tell them about something that is said to be better than the Super Bowl, the first moon landing or even sex.

However, the hype around the Xolos in San Diego also has a lot to do with Tijuana’s development over recent years. With the arrests of leading drug lords and the dwindling might of the Tijuana cartel. These strikes against organized crime had a liberating effect on the people. But not on them alone. They were also evidently a catalyst for the city’s football, as the Xolos were promoted almost simultaneously to the top flight and won the championship in 2012. Suddenly, Tijuana was no longer San Diego’s ugly sister. It was a beaming champion.

This is an excerpt from a magazine piece written by 11freunde in conjunction with KICKTV for this project. Read the full story on www.11freunde.de