“We need each other,” goalkeeper Tim Howard told FIFA.com of the simmering rivalry between his USA and Mexico. “It’s not hatred. It’s a mutual respect. We grow as they grow.”

There is an eloquent wisdom to the former Everton icon’s words. So often a tornado of intensity on the field, he cuts quietly to the point. He was a member of the first American side to beat Mexico at their spiritual home, Estadio Azteca, five years ago. And Howard goes to the heart of a great rivalry, where respect, history, animosity, status, proximity and the desire to be great, jumble together in a potent broth.

“We kick each other hard and play so hard against each other because it matters so much,” Howard added, pausing to consider his words. It was a sentiment shared by former USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “I’d love to play Mexico every day,” the German said during his time in charge. “For me, it compares to the likes of Germany-Holland for the intensity and emotion it brings out in the fans.”

The two teams will meet for the 68th time on Matchday 6 of the final round of qualifying in the CONCACAF zone for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ on Sunday 11 June. The Estadio Azteca will host the latest chapter of this pulsating encounter, with the Stars and Stripes claiming just one victory in the famous Mexico City venue. That came in a friendly on 15 August 2012 when substitute Michael Orozco Fiscal scored a late goal to give USA an historic 1-0 win.

Mexican dominance early
Popular notions of the USA-Mexico rivalry do the actual contest no justice. Alexi Lalas, red-haired defender and self-styled troubadour, was kicked in the groin once. Rafa Marquez, Mexico’s battling captain, perhaps should have pulled out of the flying head-butt he aimed at dread-locked Cobi Jones. Maybe it was not wise for Landon Donovan to stir the pot so intently for so many years, acting as a lightning rod in the manner of a pro wrestling villain.

There have been slaps and kicks and disrespect and violence through the 80 years of what Klinsmann calls “one of the world’s great” rivalries. But there is more to it than that. In a time when building walls and keeping people apart is in vogue, it is worth taking a closer look at what it means when Mexico and USA play.

The two first met 80 years ago in Rome, a late qualifier for the 1934 World Cup, which the Americans won. That early moment of glory proved a false dawn, though, as Mexico took a stranglehold on proceedings. In their 21 meetings between 1937 and 1980, Mexico never lost to USA, winning 18, drawing three and scoring a whopping 90 goals to the USA's 20.  

In those years, the game the world knows as football was relegated in America to isolated ethnic communities and a handful of elite college campuses. Gridiron and baseball held sway. And while kids in the USA tossed pigskins and played sandlot stickball, Mexico’s boys kicked footballs in the streets. For two countries with so much in common, football – in those five decades – belonged to the Mexicans. Soccer, north of the Rio Grande, was a novelty.

Everything changed in the 1990s, piggy-backing on the sensation of the North American Soccer League in the 1970s and the arrival in America of Pele, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer and Eusebio. The World Cup came to American shores in 1994, and the people took note. What came next, Major League Soccer, proved a game-changer. With a top-tier professional league established, USA were ready to stand toe-to-toe with Mexico.

New dawn in the ‘90s
From the dawn of the penultimate decade of the 20th century on, the complexion of the rivalry changed. USA climbed. Mexico worried. An agitation developed among the Mexican players, who suffered the abuse of their own fans who were not used to struggling against their neighbours to the north. “They were intense games,” said Zague, a Mexican veteran of some of the toughest games in the rivalry’s history. “I was a target for some very tough tackles, and I never complained or spoke out because it was the way it was played. No one wanted to lose.”

The tipping point came in the 2002 World Cup finals, a moment American fans hold to their hearts and Mexican fans curse like an apocalypse. In Jeonju, Korea Republic, USA beat Mexico 2-0 in the Round of 16, the first in a line of meaningful Dos a Cero results for the Americans. “I’ll never forget that goal,” said Donovan, the young new hero who represented USA’s fast rise, about scoring the second. “Scoring in a win over Mexico in the World Cup was a seriously big deal.” 

On the other side of the coin, the eliminated Mexicans were forced to hide out among Seoul’s tall buildings and dark nightclubs for more than a week. Their fans were waiting back home to let them know just how much of a big deal it was.

It is more than a game when Mexico and USA meet. In the smell of the grass and the baiting of the crowd are wrapped up nearly 100 years of shared history. On the eve of yet another charged meeting between the close rivals, it is important to remember this is not a story of aggression or violence, or even of goals and stats. It is a tale of two neighbours, North American cousins with more in common than they know, desperate to win the day.