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A football game (American football) was the spark that brought about the Tlatelolco Massacre

Thursday, November 17, 2016 10:40
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Posted by DD Material  from Bleacher Report  Some material republished.  
Photography by Photography by Rodrigo Cruz (except where noted)

American style football may again become as popular or even more popular than soccer in Mexico.  And it may have been the spark that ignited a student movement that led to the Tlatelolco Massacre   Now don’t start screaming that I am crazy until you  read the rest of this story. 

When the National Football league (NFL) announced in February of this year that the game between the Houston Texans vs. Oakland Raiders would be played on Nov. 21 in Aztec Stadium in Mexico City, the NFL Commissioner said ““We have a tremendous, passionate fanbase in Mexico.”  It will only be the second regular season NFL game ever played in Mexico.   Fans of “American football” as opposed to “futbol” (soccer) went wild. 

In July the price of the tickets was announced  and the response by Mexican fans was amazing considering the minimum ticket price was $50USD  (350 Mx. pesos) and prices  went up to $326USD (6,050 Mx. pesos). It sold out in a matter of minutes even though fans were limited to 4 tickets each.    Keep in mind the minimum daily wage in Mx. last July was a little under $4.00 US.

The few people that know that American football was at one time the most popular university sport in Mexico probably were not surprised.  

Football came to Mexico in the 1920s, the sport imported from the United States by students returning from American schools. In 1927, two brothers—both fans of Notre Dame—launched the first formal UNAM team.

UNAM in the 1960s was the top public college in Mexico, as it still is. Acceptance was and remains extremely competitive, though those sharp enough to get in pay next to nothing in tuition. Several Mexican presidents attended the school, as have future presidents of Guatemala and Costa Rica. Octavio Paz, the Nobel laureate in literature, is an alumnus, as is Carlos Slim, regularly alternating as either the first- or second-richest person alive. Back then, a few generations after the Mexican Revolution, the country was stable and increasingly prosperous. Many families sent their sons and daughters to college for the first time. Those students who made it into UNAM found themselves at the front of a cultural revolution.

An American expat working for the Ford Motor Company donated helmets and pads. El Irlandes que Lucha didn’t quite work as a nickname, so at first the team went by Los Osos, after the Chicago Bears. Team colors—which became the colors for the whole university—stayed true to South Bend, as did the fight song.

Within a few years, a new coach, looking for a mascot more Mexican, selected a jungle cat that was small like his players, and was known to fight to the death. Pumas grew into a national power. No other team in Mexico—not Monterrey Tech, National Polytechnic (IPN) or anyone else—has won as many championships. 

So dominant was Pumas in Mexico that the school barnstormed around the United States. On New Year’s Day 1945, UNAM became the first foreign school to play in the Sun Bowl, losing to Southwestern by a score of 35-0. (Pumas finished the game with negative-21 yards of offense.)
The rivalry with nearby IPN evolved into El Clasico, Mexico’s biggest game of every year.

 Estadio Olimpico, which opened in 1946 primarily for football, sold out so steadily, for so many years in a row, that officials ordered up Estadio Azteca, capacity 105,000, in large part to meet the demand.   Fans would arrive at the stadium at 10AM for a 4PM kickoff to get a good seat and  just play chess or play dominoes  with each other until the game started.

The sport was an important center of attention. In politics and even in the arts. Mexican stars often came to the fields to watch games. The president of Mexico used to show up to celebrate the first game of the season.”

Robert Andrew Powell, the author of the story in Bleacher Report interviewed Hector Castro on a trip to Mexico to explore the relationship between American football and the Mexican people.
Much of this material in this story is from that investigation. 

In one interview Hector Castro (super fan) tells Powell  “that football was more popular than soccer, Mucho mas! This stadium would be full. They could not fit more people. It was always packed.”
Hector Castro (super fan)
 Castro is 62 years old, a medical doctor and a graduate of the University of Mexico, or UNAM. His college, one of the most prestigious schools in Latin America, has long sponsored Pumas, the best-known and most successful football team in the country. As by reported in Bleacher Report Powell, he  ran into Castro on a warm Saturday in October, when he took in a Pumas game.
Pumas on practice field

        Goya! Goya!

        Cachun, cachun, RAH! RAH!

        Cachun, cachun, RAH! RAH!


“A chant I recognized from UNAM’s soccer team rang out after every big play, which usually meant every long pass. Turns out the chant, like most of UNAM’s athletic traditions, started with the football team”.

“Football was popular with everyone, but it has always been most popular with the students,”  Castro explains to him. “After 1968, that stopped a little.”  (DD; that is an understatement) 


In another interview by Powell with Raul Rivera a former head coach of the Pumas who he led to a national championship Rivera said ““1968 is a very important year for Mexico,”

I notice that when we talk about Pumas and football, much of what we discuss has nothing to do with tackles or running backs.

“What happened in 1968 is still fresh. Nobody forgets,” he tells me. “There’s a phrase in Mexico, ‘dos de Octubre, no se olvida.’” October second is not forgotten. “I was born in 1974, six years after it happened, and still I know about it, like everyone in the country. It I notice that when we talk about Pumas and football, much of what we discuss has nothing to do with tackles or running backs.

Pumas former coach Paul Rivera

 “What happened in 1968 is still fresh. Nobody forgets,” he tells me. “There’s a phrase in Mexico, ‘dos de Octubre, no se olvida.’” October second is not forgotten. “I was born in 1974, six years after it happened, and still I know about it, like everyone in the country. It was something traumatic.”

Revolutionary uprisings were erupting all over the world in 1968. That summer, as Mexico prepared to become the first Latin American country to host an Olympic Games, unrest first emerged on the UNAM campus. It started at a football game.


“At the universities, even at the high schools, it’s the students’ sport,’’ Coach Rivera says of football, echoing the words Hector Castro told me at the game. “Soccer is for everybody, but football is most popular with the students.”

Two high school teams affiliated with UNAM and its big rival IPN played each other in late July 1968.  After the game, a fight broke out among fans. The fight itself has been described as no particular big deal. The government’s response, though, felt like overkill. Riot police barricaded students inside UNAM’s high school, holding them captive for days. One officer discharged a bazooka, obliterating a door that had been hand-carved in the 18th century.

The UNAM student body rallied against the police aggression. The rector of the university joined the cause, lowering flags to half-mast and referring to the trapped students as political prisoners. The UNAM campus emptied into the streets, marchers shouting “Unete pueblo!” People unite!

In August, the movement’s leaders found their voice. They demanded the release of political prisoners, the abolition of the riot police and other liberal reforms. When the demands were not met, students chanted insults at President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, which had never been done; Mexican presidents had always been treated with reverence.

Marching into El Zocalo, the capital’s main square and the symbolic center of the country, the students vowed to stay overnight, or stay for a week, if that’s what it took. President Diaz Ordaz responded with tanks, first in the main square, then eventually onto the UNAM campus, which he shut down.

President Diaz has been described as as “patriarchal” and “authoritarian.” He censored rock music during his tenure. His police cut the long hair off boys walking down the street. The Olympic Games of 1968 were to be a coming-out party, his chance to show that Mexico was modern, a first-world nation. Nothing was going to disrupt the Games. So strong was his desire for order that, among all his efforts to crush the student uprising, he actively disrupted football. Of all things.

By October 2, with the Olympics about to start, Diaz Ordaz warned that he had tolerated student criticism, but “todo tiene un limite.” Everything has a limit. Grainy footage of a student rally in the Plaza of the Three Cultures shows young children in the crowd that day, and at least one pet dog. From a third-story terrace in an apartment building that fronts the plaza, students aired their grievances. Armed troops massed in the ruins of the old Aztec city. A military helicopter twirled overhead. When a flare dropped from the helicopter onto the plaza, the crowd scattered in confusion. Then the shots rang out.

It’s still unclear exactly what happened. The general consensus, all these years later, is that the first shots came from snipers planted by the government, and that the bullets were intended to spook the troops on the ground. Those troops fired back, striking one student after another. A low estimate counted maybe 40 dead. Other estimates start at 300 people killed, with the true number possibly much higher. (Remains of massacre victims have been discovered as recently as 2007.) Films show bodies falling onto the plaza’s slate tiles. And then more bodies. And then more bodies still.

Memorial monument with the names and ages of the known dead murdered that horrible day

 “The most traumatic part was the next day,” says Rivera. “The main TV news in Mexico started with an announcement that Mexico is waking up to a sunny day. Nobody said anything! Everybody was expecting questions like, ‘What happened? Why did they shoot them? Why are there so many dead?’ And yet, nothing.”

In 2005 and 2006 the then 84 year old former President Luis Echeverría (who was the interior minister and head of national security at the time of the massacre) was brought up on genocide charges concerning the 1968 massacre, and also separately accused of the same crime due to the Corpus Christi Massacre in 1971, where more student protestors, among others, were killed.  However, within a month this was dismissed because the statute of limitations had passed.  Further legal action was taken, but by 2009, Echeverría was cleared due to lack of direct evidence.

As for Echeverría, he claims the order for such an act by the snipers and army during the Tlatelolco Massacre could only have come from President Ordaz himself, who died in 1979.  “There was a hierarchy. The army is obligated to respond to only one man. My conscience is clear.”

Mexican presidents Luis Echeverría and Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. (Picture courtesy of Archivo Proceso)
The massacre at Tlatelolco effectively ended Mexico’s student movement.   The 1968 football season was canceled across Mexico. In 1969 UNAM tried to field a team but other universities declined to play them. A year after that, in 1970, Pumas players were divided into three separate squads, to dilute their talent. The games of those three teams were monitored closely by the government.

One former player told Powell “rowdy “fans” were planted in the stands to disrupt the games, to steal wallets and purses, to smash stuff and make the stadiums unattractive places to spend an afternoon.”  Castro, the doctor and Pumas fan, told him the same thing.

“They didn’t want the students to get together, so they tried to disrupt football,” Castro says. “There was still that taboo linked to football, because of what happened in ‘68.”

UNAM football players didn’t unite again as one team until 30 years after the massacre, in 1998.

Football in Mexico was wounded by the crackdown on the student movement, but it survived.  A domestic professional league has started up, with six teams so far, all of them sporting their own cool helmets. And of course, the NFL is coming to the Azteca.  

members of the current Puma team jogging onto the practice field.
Ten days after the massacre at Tlatelolco,  President Diaz Ordaz opened the Summer Olympic Games. Volunteers released thousands of doves in a symbolic reference to the Games’ theme, which was peace.

At  the apartment building fronting the Plaza of Three Cultures,  from the terrace where the student leaders spoke to the crowd a mural has been painted which has a caricature of President Diaz and the words ““No se olvidara.” Do not forget. The massacre indeed remains fresh. 


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