The Dark History Behind the Construction of Mexico’s Estadio Azteca

Some of world’s most famous soccer moments happened at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca. It was on that pitch ringed with 110,000 fans where Pelé led Brazil to a World Cup victory in 1970 and where Maradona punched his famous goal known as La Mano de Dios and later dribbled past half dozen of English soccer players to score again. Maradona’s amazing slalom is still regarded as the most epic goal ever.

But this stadium has a dark secret. More than being a towering monument to the most beautiful game, it is a monument to the nepotism that has plagued much of the history of Mexico.

Mexican architect  Pedro Ramirez Vázquez designed the Estadio Azteca. Known for his creative use of concrete, he is responsible for some of the most iconic buildings in Mexico, like La Basilica de Guadalupe and the National Anthropology Museum. The Los Angeles times said his modernist style “changed the face of Mexico City.”

It is a monument to the nepotism that has plagued Mexico.

But before he built the Estadio Azteca he was a total unknown. So why would Mexico’s largest broadcaster Televisa decide to entrust an untested architect with such a massive project? A likely answer: family connections.

In 1960, Emilio Azcarraga Milmo, owner of Televisa and Club America, founded the Sociedad de Futbol del Distrito Federal alongside the owners of Atlante and Necaxa. (In the olden days, as my grandfather Chencho has told me, Atlante and Necaxa were the kings of Mexico City soccer, not America or Chivas). The Sociedad invited architect Pedro Ramirez Vazquez along with his partner Rafael Mijares, Enrique de la Mora, and Felix Candela to submit proposals for its design. It would be the largest building ever planned in Mexico City.

Félix Candela project for Estadio Azteca, 1960.
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Of the three project proposals submitted, those presented by Ramirez Vazquez and Candela studios were neck-and-neck to win.

Candela developed his project, featuring an exposed exterior frame of reinforced concrete, with architect Luis La Guette. Candela was already a well-established architect at the time, who had built important projects like the Pavilion of Cosmic Rays at the country’s largest public university UNAM, and Mexico’s stock exchange.

Ramirez Vazquez presented a very similar design to Candela’s, but at the last minute he changed his plans to prioritize the design of private boxes – an element that was most important to the television tycoon Azcarraga, since their sale could help finance the stadium’s high cost.

Estadio Azteca, 1966.
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But how did he know how to make the special change? One possible answer is his brother Miguel Ramirez Vazquez. Miguel was a founding member of the Sociedad del Futbol, as the owner of the Necaxa soccer team. Miguel saw the stadium as a way to earn money for his team and his family, so he wanted to help his brother out by letting him in on the specifications that would give him a leg up in the design competition, according to research by Luis M. Castaneda in a book called ‘Spectacular Mexico.’

Miguel acquired Necaxa from the Union of Electrical Workers that owned the team until 1959. The team’s sale sparked a wave of privatization of sport in Mexico and the construction of the giant private stadium – built on a foundation of family favors and inside deals – is now a permanent symbol of that process.