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WORLD CUP USA '94 : COMMENTARY : Play of Mexico's Caped Crusaders Leaves Nation Bullish


No matter how many times you have seen the entrance of the bullfighters, it is always a thrilling experience. They come out not in single file, for that would denigrate the fellow in last position, but side by side, as if all were equal, which is the case as the fight begins.


James Michener

So it will be Tuesday, in the late afternoon shadows of an American football stadium in New Jersey, when the current matadors of Mexico enter side by side, as if they were equal, which will be the case as the fight begins.

Their names are Luis Garcia and Jorge Campos, and unlike the fictional Victoriano Leal and Juan Gomez of Michener's 1960s Mexico, their opponent will not be life-threatening nor possessed of razor-sharp horns.

But in the World Cup soccer game that Garcia and Campos will play against Bulgaria, there will be many of the same elements of cultural passion that Michener threads through his story of two bullfighters. The people and the plot are fiction, the essence of the place, Mexico, is not.

From well before the start of this monthlong World Cup, to its present point in the round of 16, the path of Mexico's soccer team has been an emotional roller coaster. That's not just for the team, but for its country, which, as much or more than any soccer-mad place, ebbs and flows with its football failure and success.

On June 4, Mexico came to the Rose Bowl to play the U.S. national team in what is known in soccer as a friendly. That means the match doesn't matter in any sort of official qualifying, but is listed in the win-loss columns of the team record.

But this one mattered greatly, no matter how it was labeled.

A crowd of 91,123 turned out, and while that was the largest gathering ever to see the U.S. team play on U.S. soil, the crowd was clearly there to see the team the United States was playing. The Arroyo was a sea of green, orange and white; the colors of the Mexican flag, and the flag itself, dominated the scene like few things other than the Wisconsin Badgers' avalanche of red six months earlier.

With two weeks to the World Cup opener, it was a dress rehearsal for Mexico. It was the last full-makeup run-through before its return to the international soccer scene after an embarrassing eight-year absence caused by a disqualification from the 1990 World Cup. The Mexican Soccer Federation had sent a team to a junior tournament, and some of the team members weren't all that junior. The Mexicans had lied about some of the players' ages, and FIFA, the same international sanctioning group that fines coaches thousands of dollars for harmless arguments with referees and suspends players from entire games for not standing properly in line for free kicks, booted Mexico from the 1990 World Cup.

No matter that Mexico was the soccer power of this section of the world. No matter that Mexico had hosted the World Cup in Mexico City just four years earlier, and had run a generally successful event for FIFA after Colombia had backed out. With FIFA, history has made things like that clear: March at high noon with them and they will always draw first and step easily over the fallen body.

So it had been a long road back to June 4 in the Rose Bowl, and one of the bumps along the way had been the replacement as coach of popular Luis Menotti with Miguel Mejia Baron. Baron was a former dentist and a protege of U.S. Coach Bora Milutinovic, Mexico's coach in the '86 Cup.

The day was hot, the fans were torrid and the Mexican team was awful in a 1-0 loss. Losing in soccer is one thing, even in a friendly. But losing to a country that has demonstrated success with its feet only on "American Bandstand" was reason for shame. The Mexican flags and their carriers slinked off into the sunset, unhappy and fearful of the important days ahead.

On June 19, the third day of the tournament, Mexico played Norway in its first of three games in the Group E draw that had quickly, upon its creation at the World Cup soccer draw in late December in Las Vegas, taken on the nickname "Group of Death." Besides Mexico and Norway, the group included soccer power Italy and darkhorse Ireland.

When the draw took place, Mexico had expected--some said been assured--that it would end up in a group headquartered in Dallas. That would put it very close to a huge friendly fan base.

When the Mexicans heard they were in a group with Ireland and Italy, and would play their games along an Eastern seaboard much more heavily populated with Irish and Italian fans, their soccer contingent marched out of the Las Vegas Convention Center, site of the draw, in a huff.

Six months later, after their 1-0 embarrassment in the Rose Bowl, they marched out again in a huff, exiting the Rose Bowl through a back door with nary a word to the press.

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