MEXICO CITY — The hoopla over the World Cup soccer tournament is everywhere in town. You couldn't miss it if you tried.
Snack bars have napkins printed with trivia questions dealing with soccer. Taxis are adorned with bumper stickers that show a soccer ball and two hemispheres, the official World Cup symbol. Newspapers follow the fortunes of every key player.
Radio jingles remind listeners that foreign fans are to be warmly welcomed, and airport mobs greet arriving teams with the kind of squeals usually reserved for rock stars. Billboards encourage Mexicans to crown themselves champions of hospitality.
Schedules of all kinds are being changed. School examinations were moved up and the academic year was shortened to avoid conflict with the opening match on May 31. A church near a stadium where some of the matches will be played canceled a number of weddings because special security measures will not permit heavy traffic in the area.
Matches are being televised not only in Mexico but to virtually every place on earth, with audiences that the organizers expect to number hundreds of millions. In comparison, the Super Bowl is a demitasse, the World Series a misnomer.
"This is the biggest fiesta of them all," boasted Octavio Fernandez, spokesman for the Mexican organizers of the matches.
Almost Religious Devotion
Not a few observers have commented on the almost religious devotion accorded the games. The World Cup trophy, an 11-pound globe of 18-karat gold supported by abstract sculptures of athletes, is treated like a statue of a patron saint. Until Friday, it was on a tour of communities throughout Mexico.
In all, 24 teams will play 52 matches in nine cities. The 12 stadiums involved accommodate from 30,000 to 110,000 spectators. Tickets for more important matches are already being resold for three and four times their cost.
Mexican officials are hoping that the World Cup will be a blessing for Mexico, despite all the fears about terrorism, fan violence, traffic jams and price-gouging by hotel operators.
Good news has been scarce here recently. Earthquakes and economic problems have dominated the news for the past year or so. Favorable World Cup publicity might help tourism, which fell off after back-to-back earthquakes last September.
The soccer matches are expected to attract up to 50,000 travelers from abroad, and they are expected to spend as much as $30 million.
Mexico was chosen as the site of the games by default when Colombia, the organizers' first choice, dropped out because it could not afford to build the necessary facilities. The Olympic Games were held here in 1968, and the World Cup was previously held here in 1970; Mexico City needed only one new stadium for this year's cup.
Along with the wave of publicity, there is also concern about the image Mexico will be showing the world, and an effort is being made to put on a shiny face. Walls are being put up around Nezahualcoyotl, a squatter settlement, to hide from public view the warrens that are home for about 3 million people.
A number of improvements are under way in downtown Mexico City. Owners of buildings damaged in the earthquakes have been told by the government to repair or demolish them or run the risk of the government expropriating them.
City workers have repaired long stretches of sidewalk. Some of the damage was caused by the quakes, but much of it is attributed to subsoil movement over the years.
Mexico City's polluted atmosphere is something of a sore point with some of the World Cup officials. But Mexicans point out that June, at the height of the rainy season here, is the best time to come to Mexico City, for rain tends to wash away some of the pollutants.
"We promise purely pure air," spokesman Fernandez says.
Still, teams complained about the quality of the air here in 1970, when the metropolitan area's population was about half of what it is today and the number of cars and factories was much smaller.
On another front, questions have been raised about whether Mexico is undermining its national dignity by the way in which the World Cup competition is being promoted. A controversy erupted over the design of a sombrero-topped \o7 jalapeno \f7 pepper as the local symbol for the matches. The pepper, named "Pique" (loosely, "Hot Stuff"), has been denounced by David Carillo, head of the National Cartoonists' Assn., for "tearing down the image of the country."
Then, Mexico's national team, given a place in the tourney by virtue of Mexico's role as host, chose as its symbol a cartoon figure of Cantinflas, the famed comic character of movie actor Mario Moreno. Cantinflas drew fire from a local sociologist because the down-and-out figure is "a symbol of social breakdown."
Finally, local organizers of the games selected Mexico City's stately Palace of Fine Arts as the site of a lottery to match up the teams and stadiums for the preliminary rounds.
Artists and intellectuals bridled at the thought of the theater--the scene of concerts, ballet and other such cultural events--being used for a lottery.
"It's an affront to art," complained Arturo Azuela, president of the Latin American Confederation of Writers.
Pique and Cantinflas withstood the criticism, but the lottery was moved.
Out-and-out opposition to the matches has been muted, although some people have questioned the propriety of spending money on games while Mexico is in the midst of an extended economic recession.
The most visible protest took place on May Day, which is Labor Day here. Workers calling for a higher minimum wage shouted, "We want \o7 frijoles, \f7 not goals!"
World Cup soccer matches are held every four years, the culmination of closely followed elimination rounds among national all-star teams wherever soccer is played. This year, the elimination rounds reduced 119 national teams to the final 24.