Trump has given this sports rivalry its biggest stakes yet

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  • Andrés Martínez: US-Mexico matchup is one of soccer's most intriguing regional rivalries
  • Sunday's match has a dash of real-world tension between two antagonists, he says

Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University and a fellow at New America. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)On Sunday the United States and Mexico will go at it again, confronting each other in another high-stakes clash. No, not another Donald Trump tweetstorm aimed at Mexico (though you never know), but rather the latest World Cup qualifying match played in Mexico City's fabled Azteca Stadium.

Andrés Martinez
In recent years, this North American soccer rivalry has become one of the most intriguing contests for regional supremacy in the world's most popular sport, just a notch below the likes of the Italy-Germany and Argentina-Brazil rivalries. And Sunday's key match has the added spice that elevates great sporting rivalries into truly epic ones: a dash of real-world tension between the two antagonists.
Even without the political overtones, the intensity of this rivalry has been heating up for years as the United States continues to raise its game. Between 1934 and 1980, the US never beat Mexico, and unquestioned Mexican supremacy over the gringos in the sport that mattered most was a source of national consolation, compensating for, well, everything else. But since 1990, the US has prevailed over the Mexican side 17 times and lost only 11.
    A US-Mexico showdown still doesn't have the same off-field resonance of the classic Cold War encounters between American and Soviet athletes, or the timeless not-going-to-talk-about-the-war undertones of any England-Germany match, but it certainly brings a far more pointed context than it did even a year ago. You know, back before we elected a President whose campaign consistently maintained that Mexico, and Mexicans, are a huge problem.
    The administration has zigzagged between Trump's periodic impulses to deliver on his campaign rhetoric and his larger team's desire to maintain the close, constructive win-win cross-border relationship that has developed in the two decades since the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect.
    As recently as late April, leaks from the White House indicated that an executive order laying the groundwork for a full withdrawal from NAFTA was being prepared. Congressional leaders, the Business Roundtable and farming interests all flooded the administration with pleas to reconsider. So did Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
    After phone calls with both leaders the same evening the news of his planned executive order broke, Trump backed away from scrapping the treaty altogether, agreeing instead to renegotiate some of its provisions. The US trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, followed up on May 18 with an official notification to the Congress of the administration's intent to renegotiate provisions of the trade agreement.
    Both the letter's tone and scant specifics suggest that Trump's more populist build-the-wall supporters are in for a big disappointment. It noted that NAFTA was negotiated a quarter-century ago and needs updating to cover digital trade, intellectual property rights, and labor and environmental standards. The Mexican government agrees that such a NAFTA "modernization" is in order.
    The question now is whether Trump's team can walk the tightrope of negotiating modest tweaks to NAFTA while allowing the President to spin them to his base as the fulfillment of his campaign promise. That's certainly the hope in Mexico City and Ottawa, and among the many industries that rely on cross-border trade and an integrated North American manufacturing strategy.
    Sadly, the fact that Trump may in the end do less substantive damage than expected to the US-Mexico relationship is not the end of the story. The rhetorical damage is significant, and Trump may cling to the fantasy of his border wall to make up for his retreat on what he's called the "very, very bad" trade agreement.
    Over the past two decades, Mexican leaders have departed from the nation's traditionally dark narrative about the United States, selling their countrymen on the idea that an ever-closer relationship is desirable. That's an increasingly difficult line to maintain in the age of Trump, and the danger is that anti-Americanism may be in for a comeback as Mexico's presidential race heats up in advance of next summer's election.
    But for now, the Azteca Stadium on Sunday will provide the most immediate and raw barometer of public sentiment around the bilateral relationship. Before the previous US-Mexico World Cup qualifier was played in Columbus, Ohio, shortly after the November election, US captain Michael Bradley made an eloquent call for fans to respect their Mexican counterparts and keep in mind that this is a passionate sporting rivalry between two nations with deep ties and mutual respect. Let's hope a similar sentiment prevails, despite all the understandable grievances, on the Mexican side.
    The rivalry also underscores the often-overlapping identities among Mexican-Americans, dividing family members (including my own) into competing cheering sections. Even the most assimilated Mexican immigrants on this side of the border find it hard to root against El Tri (as Mexico's national team is known), loath to cede fútbol, on top of everything else, to the Americans. Indeed, in his 1994 nativist screed, "Who Are We? The Challenges to National Identity," political scientist Samuel Huntington pointed to the overwhelming support for El Tri in a US-Mexico match played in Los Angeles as Exhibit A of how corrosive Mexican migration is to the United States. His larger point was absurd, though his immediate observation was accurate -- which is why when the United States seeks home-field advantage against Mexico, it takes the game to Columbus.
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    In the long run, geography, demography and economics suggest that closer integration between the nations of North America is inevitable, regardless of what today's politicians and soccer players accomplish. So much so that the United States and Mexico probably won't need to compete against each other to qualify for the 2026 World Cup, as FIFA is poised to award the tournament to the NAFTA region as a whole, treating it as one. Let's hope Donald Trump isn't on Twitter when that announcement comes down.