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Charlotte’s CONCACAF Gold Cup matches are as much festival as futbol

Mexico fans enjoy the wave and atmosphere of Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte before Wednesday’s Mexico-Trinidad Gold Cup soccer match.
Mexico fans enjoy the wave and atmosphere of Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte before Wednesday’s Mexico-Trinidad Gold Cup soccer match. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The man is small. On his head is a golden metal crown. From the headband feathers of red, gold and black stretch into the air; ornate gold dangles downward across his face. He wears what look like gold shoulder pads and extensive gold armor.

He is the most interesting Aztec warrior I have ever seen on Mint Street. But he might not be the most interesting man.

The crowd outside Bank of America Stadium at 2:45 p.m. Wednesday – more than three hours before the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament soccer game between Guatemala and Cuba and more than seven hours before the game between Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago – is compelling.

Air horns provide the beat, as do the Mexican fans across Stonewall Street from the statue of Sam Mills III who chant and yell. One man wears a sombrero so big that if you filled it with food a family of four could eat for a week.

Carolina Panthers employees who went to work early Wednesday said they saw tailgaters outside the stadium at 7 a.m. As the day wears on, many parents bring children. A family wearing Guatemalan blue and white, a man, a woman and girl about 5 years old, lean against a barrier outside the stadium.

Passing in front of them are a woman and a little girl. The girl wears a white bow in her hair and a Mexican jersey that almost reaches the pavement. Behind her a horn blasts. She doesn’t even move.

Flags wave, faces are painted, horns are sold and immediately honked, Jarritos Mexican soft drinks are sipped, Paleterias Tropicana homemade Mexican ice cream is eaten, pictures are taken and Tecate beer is consumed. Spanish hip-hop plays at a booth set up in the street.

Words not obliterated by the horns come fast and often are followed by laughter. I know there’s a reason I studied German in college, but I can’t remember what it is.

The afternoon is as much festival as futbol.

Let’s say you’re from Guatamala and you live in Charlotte. Maybe you found a new team here. Maybe you found a new sport.

When do you get to go out and celebrate your heritage? Guatemalans celebrate Wednesday, at least until the game begins. It’s their time and their team, and they get to wear their colors.

The game is more than homecoming. It’s a visit from home.

Mexico is the heavy favorite among these four teams. In fact, the loudest cheers in the Cuba-Guatamala game are, until the end, “Mexico! Mexico! Mexico!”

Cuba, expected to be the worst team of the four, scores a beautiful second-half goal on a diving header. That will be enough. With about 30 seconds remaining during the 1-0 victory Cuban players face the crowd and wave and jump, and fans chant “Cu-ba! Cu-ba! Cu-ba!”

Then come boos when red-and-white clad Trinidad and Tobago runs onto the field and the crazed cheers when Mexico does.

All the fans with all the horns have another reason to boo. As they wait outside the South entrance to the stadium they hear these words: “Welcome to Bank of America Stadium.”

This is a good start.

They then hear: “No alcohol, no knives, no guns and no horns.”

When horns are outlawed, only outlaws will have horns.

Not far from the Aztec warrior is a Lucha Libre, a Mexican wrestler. A big man, he wears a bright green and orange mask, an orange cape, green Spandex shorts, gold shin guards and matching gold guards that cover his forearms. His large stomach is not covered, and not a thing he does suggests he cares.

The Aztecan has his partisans, the wrestler his. Both men move inexorably toward the other. That they come together is inevitable, and finally, on Mint Street in front of a bronze Panther statue, they meet.

As the men look at each other, horns honk, cameras whir and Spanish-speaking television interviewers rush into the fray.

Winner gets Ric Flair.

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