"Viva Mexico!" met "Hajmo Bosna!" on Wednesday at the Georgia Dome.
More than 50,000 fans packed the arena to scream "Long live, Mexico!" or "Go, Bosnia!" In the end, "Viva" and Mexico defeated "Hajmo" and Bosnia-Herzegovina 2-0 in the international friendly soccer match behind goals from Javier Hernandez and Edgar Pacheco.
However, the love of country and sport transcended the red-and-green sombreros or blue-and-white toboggan hats. It was expressed with drums, horns, cheers and, when not so happy, reams of toilet paper or ribbon thrown liberally onto the field. And, of course, one blindingly pale, but surprisingly quick streaker.
Some, such as Lawrenceville's Goran Kovac, were an example of the Bosnian fan. Because of the country's civil war, he left for Germany in 1992. Six years later, he moved to the United States. Refugees then. Citizens now.
He said watching his former country play soccer is a "once-in-a-hundred-year" experience. The Bosnian support was surprisingly large considering the country has a population of 4.6 million, less than the population of metro Atlanta. Dzemil Hamzic, another refugee, made the 11-hour drive from St. Louis, leading a two-van caravan full of young boys that he coaches. Hamzic draped himself in the Bosnian flag, while his protégés dyed their hair blue and white, or painted their faces the same colors.
Even those not affected by birthplace or lineage were impressed. Pointing to the goose bumps on his arm, Georgia Dome general manager Carl Adkins said the game was a cocktail of many of the events the building has held in the past.
"It's a playoff atmosphere for the Falcons, it's a SEC championship all rolled into one," he said.
No matter the fervor of Bosnia's fans, Mexico's wouldn't be drowned out or overshadowed. Though they have had more opportunities to watch "El Tri," including watching them demolish Venezuela in the Georgia Dome in front of more than 50,000 fans in 2009, or tying Iceland last year in Charlotte, they were out in full-throated, lucha libre mask-wearing force.
However, this was Norcross resident's Celso Perez first chance to watch his favorite team and favorite player, goalkeeper Jesus Corona. Why not "Chicharito" Hernandez or Giovani Dos Santos, whose jerseys were among the more popular worn Wednesday? Perez, wearing the Mexican flag as a cape, his face painted red, white and green and his hair spiked, is a goalkeeper for a youth team named the Silverbacks.
Corona made Perez proud and kept Mexico in the game in the first half with a smothering save on a shot from Vedad Ibisevic in the 32nd minute. An offside call pulled back an earlier goal from Ibisevic in the 17th minute.
Mexico missed its best chance when Hernandez shanked a shot to the right in the 45th minute with just the goalie to beat. The shot was set up by a beautiful left-to-right cross from Dos Santos.
Hernandez made up for the uncharacteristic error just a few minutes into the second half when he was hit in the face by a Bosnian defender, earning a penalty kick. Goalkeeper Kenan Hasagic dove to his left to deny Hernandez's first shot, but he toe-poked it back toward the goal, where it barely trickled over the line before Hasagic could stop it.
Mexico added a second a few minutes later when Pacheco ran onto a long goal kick from Corona, skipped in between Mensur Mujdza and Hasagic and looped a shot into the goal from the top of the penalty box.
Not all the fun happened during the game. Before, thousands of fans ventured to the "Futbol Fiesta" fan zone in the Georgia World Congress Center, where organizers tried to make the Mexico fans feel at home by replicating a copy of the "Angel de la Independencia" that can be found in Mexico City. The statue features a golden angel, wings spread, sitting atop a top pillar. The real statue is a popular gathering spot after games for fans in Mexico City. The smaller version was popular in Atlanta, with fans mingling underneath talking or people watching.
While waiting to get into the game, young boys and girls played with miniature foosball tables at one of the exhibits, while others held up orange-framed posters with proclamations of love for their team or favorite player.
The game was seemingly another success in the city's recent foray into the sport. Officially, 50,507 attended Wednesday's game. More than 100,000 fans attended two games during the summer of 2009, and another 30,000 overcame post-World Cup fatigue to attend an international club match last summer. All four were held at the Dome.
"Atlanta continues to demonstrate that it can support world-class soccer events," Dan Courtemanche, vice president of Soccer United Marketing, which put on the game. "We will continue to look at Atlanta for future events, whether it's Mexico, international friendlies, CONCACAF Gold Cups or perhaps U.S. national-team games."
Osman Dulic, another Bosnian fan who made the long trip from St. Louis, perhaps simply summed up the fans' feelings best:
"I've never experienced anything like this in my life."
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