Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Soccer: How the world’s most popular sport arrived in Mexico

Call it football, fútbol or soccer, that’s your preference. One thing is indisputable, though. It’s the world’s most popular sport – loved, watched and played by over 265 million – and its growing popularity in Mexico is breaking records yearly. In 2026, Mexico will co-host the next World Cup alongside the USA and Canada, becoming the first country ever to host the renowned competition three times.

But despite its massive national and international appeal, the remarkable and deadly story of how fútbol (as it is known in Mexico) became an integral part of Mexican life remains largely unknown.

In 2026, Mexico will co-host the next World Cup alongside the USA and Canada, becoming the first country ever to host the renowned competition three times. (Canva)

Soccer’s journey to Mexico from a humble English mining town 

In the early 19th century, Mexico’s once-prolific silver mines in Real del Monte, in central Mexico, faced an uncertain future. The mines had fallen victim to years of neglect during the country’s war for independence with the Spanish. Integral mineshafts were flooded, outdated machines lay broken and disused and with little investment to help improve resources, the country’s mines were in disrepair.

Recognizing an urgent need to rejuvenate this vital part of the national economy, investors in Mexico’s silver mines turned to the United Kingdom, specifically a region on the south coast called Cornwall, for support.

The quiet coastal region had a global reputation for state-of-the-art mining equipment and specialist expertise in operating complex, modern machinery. With that, 60 Cornish miners in 1825 bid goodbye to their families and friends at the Falmouth Docks in southern England and boarded a large boat that would carry them and 1,500 tonnes of equipment over 6,000 nautical miles to Veracruz, one of Mexico’s oldest and most significant ports, before the journey on land to Real del Monte.

The transatlantic voyage to save Mexico’s ailing mining industry would claim the lives of many and leave some of those who waved goodbye to the sixty young men at Falmouth Docks as grieving widows, parents and children.

On arrival, the Spanish still held the port of Veracruz, forcing the miners to land on the beach of Mocambo. The disruption caused massive delays, leaving the English and Mexican men employed to help them with no choice but to take a dangerous route through the jungle.  

Swampy waters and the rainy season in Mexico saw several men contract Yellow Fever. According to the diaries of an English engineer, John Buchanan, 100 Mexican men and 30 English men died during these months, which forced the surviving party to abandon much of their cumbersome equipment and make their way to the safety of the mountains in Xalapa until the rainy season ended. The 250-mile journey on land, which was supposed to take the group less than a month, was in great jeopardy.

Fourteen months later, with many friends and colleagues buried along the way, the mining party made it to Real del Monte, the highest town in Mexico at 10,000 feet above sea level. Engineer John Buchanan reported in his diary: After great labour and many accidents, we conquered this great ascent and our convoy proceeded on our last stage to deposit its valuable cargo in Real del Monte.”

Life in Real del Monte or Mexico’s “little Cornwall”

Work began quickly for those who survived the first journey to Mexico, and a small, distant English enclave grew. A cemetery, built on a hilltop overlooking the town, called the Panteón Inglés, was soon constructed to honor the dead. The high-quality equipment salvaged during the 14-month journey from Veracruz was instrumental in repairing old mining machinery.

But as English miners laid down roots in Mexico, it wasn’t their technology and expertise that would have the greatest impact on Mexico’s culture but their customs and traditions. By the early 20th century, the state of Hidalgo, where Real del Monte is located, had the most British transplants of any Mexican state, most notably a regular afternoon game of fútbol enjoyed by the local Mexicans and the British expatriates.

At 4 p.m. daily, Mexican and English miners would pause work for a kickabout. The tradition became part of the working day and love of the simple game quickly spread to nearby towns and regions in Hidalgo. The town of Pachuca, just 14km west of Real del Monte, would launch the country’s first official football club by the turn of the 20th century.

The sport has become a source of pride for Mexico on the global stage. Current estimates show over 8 million play soccer in over 17,000 teams across the country. (Canva)

Today, Pachuca is known as the country’s cuna del fútbol (cradle of football) and home to the Salón de la Fama soccer museum, which charts the sport’s early history and long-lasting legacy.

The sport grew from early informal matches between miners in Real del Monte, and by the early 1920s, Mexico’s national league had been set up. In 1922, the Mexican Association Soccer Federation was founded. The national team was formed one year later, with their first participation on the international stage during the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic Games and their first appearance in the FIFA World Cup in Uruguay in 1930.

Mexico would go on to host the World Cup in 1970. It became the first country to host the tournament twice in 1986, and in 2026, Mexico will break another record by becoming the first country to host the World Cup three times.

The sport has become a source of pride for Mexico on the global stage. Current estimates show over 8 million play soccer in over 17,000 teams across the country and it’s not just a sport for the players, but also for spectators.

Mexico’s match against Argentina during last year’s FIFA World Cup became the most-watched Group Stage match in Spanish-language history in the United States. It drew a national audience of over 20 million people in Mexico.

The sport brought to Mexico from Cornwall faced an uphill battle that claimed many lives before the first game was ever played on Mexican soil. But from tragedy, the country’s most sacred and beloved sport has helped elevate Mexico’s international reputation.

Alongside stadiums in Guadalajara and Monterrey, the world-famous Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, known as a coliseum of world football which welcomed the likes of Pele and Diego Maradona across two World Cup finals, will be packed with thousands of spectators from across the world in 2026. The stage in Mexico is set for more pulsating moments during football’s most prestigious global event.

Gordon Cole-Schmidt is a freelance journalist based in Oaxaca, Mexico.


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