Notes on the 5th Anniversary of “No Era Penal”

Leading up to the 2018 World Cup, I spent time with members of the Dallas Battalion of Pancho Villa’s Army. I wrote an article about soccer and identity for D Magazine (here’s a link to that article). We spoke about a variety of things, among them the infamous “no era penal.” For a variety of reasons—word count, the section feeling a bit off-topic compared to rest of article—I took it out of the draft I submitted. But even though I cut out, I’ve always been struck by what we spoke about and hearing how deeply hurt, even scarred, they and seemingly all fans of the Mexican national team were by how the 2014 World Cup ended.

Months ago, I pitch an article to a few places. The topic was the 5th anniversary of the “no era penal.” I wanted to do a type of oral history where I’d ask fans what they felt, during, and after the game. Of course, I was specifically interested in that moment when, as Randy Diaz, captain of Dallas’ Pancho Villa’s Army, described it, “our world came down.” Ultimately, I received no interest. But I know there’s a story there; all you have to do was look at the original “no era penal” video and read the comments where people track the exact days since that moment. I also know that I likely didn’t pitch it properly and an oral history may have been the wrong approach. Perhaps in another 5 years I’ll figure out a better way of telling that story which felt like a moment of collective grief across two countries. But for now, here’s the “no era penal” section that didn’t even make the first draft of what I submitted to editor.

 Note: I cleaned it up a bit. Took out some phrases that indicated a possible topic. But because it was cut out rather early, this section was never fully self-edited.  

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Talk to any fan of the Mexican national soccer team and they can tell you where they were when the coward Arjen Robben took a dive. They can tell you who they were surrounded by and where they sat or stood. They can tell you what they were drinking or eating. They can tell you what they felt—pain, incredulity, frustration—when the referee blew his whistle and awarded Holland a penalty kick. That moment, in the 2014 World Cup became etched in the collective minds of those who cheer for Mexico.

“I cried that game,” Randy Diaz says of that game. Diaz is the captain of the Dallas Battalion of Pancho Villa’s Army, or PVA, the fan club of Mexico’s national team. “I remember that game,” he continues, “I cried at Ojos Locos.”

Before this upcoming summer’s World Cup, when Mexico landed in the Group of Death, facing Germany—the defending World Cup champions—in their first game, Diaz watched from work. It ruined his day, he says. He told people not to talk to him. “Mexico, we don’t ever ask for anything easy…but for once,” Diaz asks rhetorically, “why can’t we have it semi-easy?”

Nothing has ever come easy for fans of the Mexican national team. The team’s history is filled with heart-breaking losses. Victories against soccer giants that felt close only to slip away. And yet despite the many soul-crushing loses, almost instantly, “no era penal” eclipsed every other pain felt by that those who watch Mexico lose in the World Cup with that almost helpless feeling.

“That game, I mean, I cried,” Diaz admits, again. “More out of anger, I guess. Because I just couldn’t believe it. We were 8 minutes away from winning.”

An inherent part of losing after feeling so close to winning, is dealing with the quiet questions that ask what could have been. Jovany Alejo is a sergeant-at-arms in PVA. He sounds convinced that had Mexico won that game, they could have won the World Cup. He remains convinced the 2014 was Mexico’s easiest path to winning it all. Even years later, there’s a frustration in his voice as he effortlessly explains his logic in thinking Mexico could have won it all. How, had they not been robbed against Holland, they would have beaten Costa Rica and then Argentina.

You hear Alejo talk and you become convinced. And in that conviction, you, again, begin to feel like you just saw that unbelievable penalty. “For them to just come and take it away the way that they took it away from us.” Jovany says, his tone slightly changes. “That was the most heartbreaking world cup I’ve ever seen.” Randy, almost as if still in a somber reflection simply states, “no era penal.”

A few moments later Randy describes that moment, when the referee awarded that penalty, in that place, around all those fans, that moment felt like, “our world came down.”

“Aww man. It was heartbreaking,” Jovany adds. He, like Randy, also watched at Ojos Locos.

Sitting next to Alejo, in BuzzBrews in Deep Ellum, is Hector Valdez, a lieutenant in PVA. He watched the “no era penal” game at a friend’s house.

“Everybody was sad,” Hector recalls the feeling at the watch party, “some dudes were crying. I was just like, I couldn’t believe it, you know. I was like, ahhh.”

The infamous “no era penal” game reaffirmed that life can be unjust. We know this. We, one would think, should have been ready for it. But hope—cheering on for the Mexican national team to win the World Cup, in this case—does crazy things to you. You begin to imagine the impossible. You daydream when you should know better. Slowly, that dream goes from fantasy to something more real. Something that can actually happen. And it’s at that moment when the sucker punch comes. And because life is funny, there was an element of tragicomedy: Robben is also the Spanish word describing one getting robbed.

“That game is going to stick with me, I think, forever.” Randy says. Hector gives an acknowledging chuckle that tries to hide a pain. “Growing up a Cowboys fan, you’re used to disappointments,” Hector adds. Everyone laughs. Silence follows.