MEXICO CITY (AP) — Of the thousands of Mexican fans expected to travel to Qatar for the biggest soccer tournament in the world, only one of them can boast of having attended 10 World Cups and more than 450 matches for the country’s national team: Héctor Chávez, better known as “Caramelo.”
With a black charro hat on his head, dressed in the green El Tri jersey and carrying a Mexican flag with the letters of his native state of Chihuahua embroidered on the front, “Caramelo” — which means Candy — has become a familiar sight in every stadium where the team plays in Mexico and around the world, and not only for official tournaments.
“It’s a lot of sacrifice. I would say it’s even a Via Crucis for so many games I have attended,” Chávez said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I’m talking about more than 450 national team games.”
The Mexican team, in addition to official tournaments, has a contract with U.S.-based company Soccer United Marketing that, since 2003, requires it to play at least five friendly matches on American soil.
This year alone, between friendlies and official games, Mexico has played 15 matches and only four of those were in Mexico.
“On the one hand, it hits you in the family relationship, and of course in your pocket, following the national team without missing anything and having to travel anywhere around the world implies a large financial outlay,” said Chávez, who runs a jewelry store. “It is tiring to have been doing it for more than 40 years.”
Chávez said the first national team match he attended was on Feb. 19, 1986, when Mexico faced the Soviet Union in the country’s capital. His first official match in a World Cup was that same year, on June 3 against Belgium.
It was there that the idea of starting to follow Mexico around the world was born.
“I had all the experience of Mexico ’86 and that was when I said, ‘A World Cup is a total party. I’m going to try to go to every one,’ and that’s how it was,” he said.
Although Mexico was banned from the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Chávez went to that tournament and then continued his pilgrimage through the United States in 1994, France in 1998, South Korea and Japan in 2002, Germany in 2006, South Africa in 2010, Brazil in 2014 and Russia in 2018.
Chávez studied business administration and went to his first World Cup because his father bought the tickets. He remembers going to Italy with a backpack on his shoulder and on a limited budget, but he later opened his jewelry store that helped him pay his expenses since 1994.
“I remember that when I opened my jewelry store, I was on a street where there were others on the same street and I opened an hour before and closed an hour after, in addition to working on Sundays because I had to be one step ahead,” Chávez said. “All this has been based on work. That has allowed me to travel everywhere with the national team.”
Although he does not follow all games, Chávez said he traveled to the 2012 London Olympics and the 2005 Under-17 World Cup in Peru. Mexico won both.
“I remember the game and Oribe’s (Peralta) goals against Neymar’s team and seeing the flag raised high, singing the anthem. I remember it and I get goose bumps and you cry with the same joy,” Chávez recalled of the Olympic gold-medal match. “But without a doubt the best memory is when we beat Brazil in the 1999 Confederations Cup at the Azteca Stadium with those great goals from Cuauhtémoc (Blanco).”
Following Mexico, he has also witnessed some hard moments, especially the eliminations in the round of 16, which has been the ceiling for Mexico in all World Cups since 1994.
Of those, the loss to the United States in 2002 hurt the most.
“Not so much because they eliminated us, but because our archenemy eliminated us,” Chávez said. “For years we felt superior to them and that time they humiliated us. It was a very sad day for ‘Caramelo.’ I did not want to leave the hotel for three days after that.”
In Mexico, Chávez is the only fan who follows the national team to all its matches. There is another group called the Ola Verde that does something similar, but they only travel to official tournaments around the world.
Chávez’s story is like that of Manuel Cáceres, known as “Manolo el del bombo” or “Manolo the bass drummer.” He has followed the Spanish national team since the 1982 World Cup.
“I would say that my friend ‘Manolo el del bombo’ is my closest competitor. He is a good friend, we have met and talked over the phone,” said Chávez, who mentioned that Brazilian fan Clovis Acosta Fernandes — who was known as the “Gaúcho Da Copa” but died in 2015 — also inspired him.
The Mexican soccer federation knows Chávez well. Although he pays for his own trips, he usually stays in the hotels where the national team stays. He recently shared a video on his official Instagram account in which, before getting into an elevator, he asks Mexico coach Gerardo Martino if he plans to include former national team striker Javier Hernández in the squad.
Additionally, his account is full of images in hotels next to Mexican players not only on the current roster but also from past World Cups.
“It’s not that I consider myself the No. 1 fan, but the people and the media let me know,” Chavez said. “‘Caramelo’ accepts this recognition as a responsibility because I feel like an ambassador for the Mexican fans.”
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