From San Diego to Tijuana

Hey Gringo! Wazz up?

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.

Robert Benson

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?"

Rockin' in the Free World

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' in 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 lot 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'.