Sunday 31 May 2020, 13:00

Estadio Azteca: Mexico's mythical temple

  • The Azteca is one of the world’s most revered football stadiums

  • It has hosted a record 19 FIFA World Cup matches and two Finals

  • It wowed Pele and Pope John Paul II

‘The Game of the Century’ ‘The Goal of the Century’ The canonisation of ‘The Beautiful Team’ The most deafening roar in football history The global breakout of the ‘Mexican Wave’ ‘The lung-busting burst’ ‘The Hand of God’

How can one stadium have grandstanded so many of the most iconic happenings in FIFA World Cup™ history? Sure, the Estadio Azteca holds the unique distinction of having staged two Opening Matches and Two Finals, and hosted a record 19 games overall. But there’s more to it than that.

"There’s just something very special about the Azteca," said Pele. "You need to be inside it, to feel it to understand. It’s unique."

Mexico yearned the World Cup. It flirted with the idea of bidding for the 1958 instalment, but reluctantly let Sweden solo-swim to the rights.

"Mexico didn’t want to just put on a World Cup – we wanted to put on the best World Cup the world had ever seen,” said Guillermo Canedo, who cast that goal as his bullseye and relentlessly threw darts at it upon his 1960 appointment as Mexican Football Association president. "And for that we needed the best stadium the world had ever seen.

"Brazil had built the Maracana for 1950. It was huge, spectacularly magical. We wanted something even better."

Naturally, every esteemed architect in Mexico, as well as some from elsewhere across the Americas, entered a last-man-standing dogfight to pilot Canedo’s 95-million-peso, uber-ambitious plan and construct this mythical temple. The first Mexican conqueror of the Royal Rumble was not Rey Mysterio or Alberto Del Rio, but Pedro Ramirez Vazquez.

"I was fortunate that Canedo was like a brother to me, that I was on the National Olympic Committee and that, while I had a great passion for architecture, I had an even bigger passion for football,” Ramirez recalled. “It was a big undertaking because the demands were quite something."

Those demands were that the Coyoacan venue host a minimum of 100,000 fans, that it make for an electrifying atmosphere, that it boast enriched features from some of the most entrancing venues on the planet, and that it be more beautiful than the enrapturing paintings of Frida Kahlo, the location’s most famous daughter who grew up playing football.

Vazquez welcomed fellow architect and painter Rafael Mijares Alcerreca on board and off they went stadia-scouting in Europe. Wembley, the San Siro, Camp Nou and the Santiago Bernabeu were all scrutinised.

Work on the Azteca was scheduled to begin in 1961, but Vazquez ran into stone – literally. To achieve a firm surface on which a stadium could be built, 180 million kilos of rock had to be dislodged from 64,000 square metres of land. Ten architects, 17 technicians, 35 engineers and 800 labourers worked daily and, though it took almost a year, they ultimately managed to dynamite the necessary rock so that work on the actual stadium could begin in 1962.

By the time it was inaugurated, with a 2-2 draw between Club America, for whom the Azteca has since been home, and Nereo Rocco’s Torino, that 95-million-peso budget had snowballed into over 200 million. Significantly, the 107,000-plus there that day knew they were spectating where history would be made in a few years’ time.

Canedo had lobbied implacably for Mexico to host the World Cup. His absorbing plans and sheer enthusiasm had provoked Australia, Colombia, Japan and Peru to pull out of the running and, at the FIFA Congress in Tokyo in 1964, the North American nation sunk its only remaining adversary Argentina – Mexico would stage the first World Cup outside Europe or South America.

And, boy, did the Azteca put on a spectacle. Highlights there included ‘The Game of the Century’ – Italy’s riveting 4-3 win over West Germany in the semi-finals – Jairzinho becoming the first player to score in every round of the World Cup, Carlos Alberto finishing one of the finest goals in the competition’s history, and Pele becoming the first – and to date only – player to win it thrice as Brazil made the Jules Rimet Trophy theirs for keeps.

“It was a thing of beauty,” said Angelo Domenghini, who played there in the semi-finals and Final. “Huge, spectacular.

“We had some of the finest stadiums in Italy, but we were all excited to play at the Azteca. Italy and [West] Germany in Mexico, we could never have dreamed the atmosphere would be so incredible. And it was like that from kick-off – even before – and not just because of all the goals.”

“The atmosphere, the noise in that Final was unbelievable,” said Carlos Alberto. “You felt like the whole of Mexico was Brazilian. Wonderful, indescribable.”

Canedo vacated office after that game, but many felt he had accomplished his galaxy-reaching goal: Mexico had platformed the hitherto most exhilarating World Cup in history.

Anybody and everyone, it seemed, raved about those 22 days in Mexico. No less than His Holiness Pope John Paul II included.

“People who know me will attest I’m a little fond of football,” the Pole, and once-aspiring goalkeeper and avid fan of the game, said smiling, addressing over 100,000 people at the Azteca on his first overseas trip since assuming the papacy. “It’s a privilege to be here, where I watched such beautiful football and a World Cup we will never forget.”

Such was its enthrallment that in 1986, Mexico became the first country to host two World Cups. The ‘Mexican Wave’ would wow the world, while Manuel Negrete’s scissor-kick sparked what was described as “the most deafening roar in football history”, 115,000 going wild at ‘The Colossus of Santa Ursula’ at a goal that won Mexico a knockout-phase game.

Diego Maradona’s earth-shaking performance against England ensued, before he hit another sumptuous double in the semi-finals against Belgium. ‘The lung-busting burst’, facilitated by Maradona and courtesy of Jorge Burruchaga, capstoned another memorable event.

It’s hard to argue that this Coyoacan coliseum, the birthplace of one of the most iconic artists ever, has not painted more iconic moments of futebol-arte, as Pele phrased it, than any other in World Cup history.

And the Estadio Azteca has more gems in store. You’ve heard where the World Cup is heading in 2026, right?

Did you know?

  • 132,000 spectators watched Mexican darling Julio Cesar Chavez TKO Greg Haugen – and swallow his “taxi drivers my mother could have knocked out” jibes – at the Azteca in 1993. It is the second highest-attended boxing match of all time, and would have been top had the 1941 bout between Tony Zale and Billy Pryor, which attracted 135,000, not been free to enter.

  • Mexico had lost seven and drew one of eight games against Brazil until they played them at the Azteca for the first time in 1968. There, an Enrique Borja brace secured a 2-1 win over soon-to-be World Cup winners Carlos Alberto, Gerson, Rivelino, Jairzinho, Tostao and Co. A Cuauhtemoc Blanco-inspired El Tri also upset the Ronaldinho-decorated Seleção in the FIFA Confederations Cup final in 1999.

  • 110,000 witnessed Jorginho, Dunga and Bebeto help Brazil beat Argentina in the FIFA U-20 World Cup decider at the venue in 1983.

  • The Azteca is the only stadium to have hosted four FIFA tournaments: the World Cup, the U-20 World Cup, the U-17 World Cup and the Confederations Cup.

  • Denmark won the Female Football Championship, a precursor to the FIFA Women’s World Cup™, there in 1971. Goal goddesses Susy Augustesen and Elisabetta Vignotto decorated the tournament.

  • The Azteca has commemorative bronze plaques to honour ‘The Game of the Century’ and ‘The Goal of the Century’.

  • The Estadio Azteca has recorded six of the ten biggest attendances in World Cup history.