Canada looks to end history of soccer failure at imposing Azteca Stadium

Japanese national team's Akinori Nishizawa (9) battles for the ball against Canadian Jason Bent during FIFA Confederations Cup action at Nigata stadium, central Japan, in this May 31, 2001 photo. Bent's memory of playing in Mexico City's Azteca Stadium has not been diminished by the almost 16 years that have passed since he waited to take the field. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Itsuo Inouye

Jason Bent's memory of playing in Mexico City's Azteca Stadium has not been diminished by the almost 16 years that have passed since he waited to take the field.

"I was one of the unfortunate ones to be hit with a plastic bag of urine — on my leg," recalled Bent, now coach of Toronto FC II.

The Mexican fans knew their stuff. The loosely tied bag was designed to open on contact.

Canada returns to Azteca to play Mexico on Tuesday for the first time since that sticky day, a 2-0 loss before 80,000 back in August 2000. The giant 50-year-old stadium has been a graveyard for Canada, which has lost five times and tied once in six visits to play Mexico dating back to 1972. Canada has been outscored 21-2 in the process.

Capacity at Azteca is listed at 95,000 these days although it has held more.

Canada (1-1-1) lost 3-0 to Mexico (3-0-0) at B.C. Place Stadium on Friday night but still stands second in Group A in the penultimate round of World Cup qualifying in the region ahead of El Salvador (0-1-2) and Honduras (0-2-1). The top two advance to the final round.

None of the current generation of Canadian internationals have experienced Azteca, although they're no stranger to playing on hostile ground in CONCACAF.

Their predecessors recall Azteca all too well.

Back in the day, players emerged from their dressing room and ascended a spiral staircase to get to field level. Bob Lenarduzzi, who played for and coached Canada at Azteca, recalls the climb vividly.

"You're coming up and if you're at the back of the line, the minute the first guy steps out so the fans can see you, the jeering starts," he said. "With 120,000 people, it's really really loud."

The din starts earlier, however. Players hear it as they leave the dressing rooms in the bowels of the stadium.

"It's almost like a beehive, it just feels like you're walking into a big beehive because there's just this buzz prior to them seeing the players," said Lenarduzzi. "And then when they see the (opposition) players it turns into jeering."

"Even when it's quiet, it buzzes like a beehive," added former Canadian goalkeeper Craig Forrest, who suffered through an 8-0 Gold Cup shellacking there in 1993.

Today, players walk up a long tunnel to the field. The fans, many with horns blaring, watch from near-vertical stands.

"When you get to the field and look up, it’s just a massive wall of human beings and concrete ... It's kind of claustrophobic. You feel enclosed in a giant cauldron with 104,000 people who are very much not there to support you," U.S. goalkeeper Brad Guzan wrote on the Players Tribune website.

It gets worse once the game begins.

"I remember having to scream at players who were only 10 feet away from me," said former Canadian captain Jason deVos.

The crowd is loud and pro-Mexican but generally well-behaved when it comes to Canada.

"It's not a hostile environment, I think it's an enjoyable one," said Lenarduzzi. "It lifts the opposition as much as the home team."

The altitude hits the visitors, however. Forrest remembers teammates on IVs after games at Azteca.

"If you don't possess the ball there, it's very very difficult to contend with a team that's buzzing around and just getting at you for 90 minutes," he said.

The altitude doesn't only affect the players, however.

"I remember training on the pitch leading up to the game and being amazed at how quickly the ball travelled through the air," said deVos, who played in the 2000 game.

The stadium, located in the south of the city some 15 kilometres from the city centre, is home to Club America which is owned by Mexican TV mogul and billionaire Emilio Azcarraga Jean.

Completed in 1966 by architects Pedro Ramirez Vazquez and Rafael Mijares Alcerreca in time for the 1968 Olympics and 1970 FIFA World Cup, the multi-tiered bowl was originally designed to hold almost 115,000 fans. The architects visited arenas around the globe for their inspiration.

They came up with a soccer fortress. At 7,200 feet above sea level, the air is thin and the sun in hot. Not to mention the smog.

Those conditions cause the game to slow down, which suits the patient build-up of the Mexicans, according to Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney.

"It becomes a very technical game, very tactical in terms of organization," said Vanney, who played at Azteca with the U.S. national team. "And that is really where they dominate."

When the Mexicans travelled north, Vanney recalled the U.S. would take them to the coldest stadium they could find and speed up the game.

"It's a challenging place but there are ways to get results," he said. "Teams over the last couple of years have been able to squeeze some results out of there."

Azteca is rich in history.

Pele led Brazil to the World Cup there, opening the scoring in a 4-1 victory over Italy in the 1970 final. The Brazilian legend headed home a Rivelino cross and then jumped into Jairzinho's arms for an iconic goal celebration.

Maradona's infamous "Hand of God' goal against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final came at Azteca before 114,000 plus. His second goal of the match — an amazing solo effort that saw him receive the ball in the Argentina half and then dribble through the England defence — was the decider in a 2-1 Argentina win.

U2 and Elton John have played to crowds of 90,000-plus there. Michael Jackson sold out five straight nights. The stadium has also been home to boxing and NFL football. Pope John Paul II drew more than 110,000.

On the plus side, Canada has won at Azteca. There were 2-1 victories over Guatemala and Suriname in World Cup qualifiers there in 1977.

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