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Fans Torn Between 2 Nations

Sports: Some side with the U.S., some with Mexico, and others have mixed emotions as the U.S. advances in World Cup competition.


As the Mexican saying goes, the week begins very badly for the man who is hanged on a Monday.

And so it began for the thousands of ever-hopeful Southern California fans of the Mexican national soccer team, who launched their workweek with hang-dog looks Monday after another bitter defeat at the hands of the United States.

"These countries are like our mother and father," said Mexican immigrant Urbano Gonzalez, 40, of Cudahy, who watched the game at Alma's Restaurant in East Los Angeles. "But you always have a little more emotion for your mother."

With a velvet depiction of Pancho Villa as backdrop, about 60 patrons stood for the Mexican national anthem, only to slump in disbelief, two hours later, as the final seconds ticked away. The United States won 2-0.

Police had prepared for possible riots after the game, but apart from a rock thrown at a Santa Ana police officer--which resulted in one arrest--no serious incidents were reported.

Boisterous, flag-waving crowds, spontaneous soccer games and screeching tires that dominated main drags such as Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles or Pacific Boulevard in Huntington Park before the game were replaced by police blockades and eerie silence as TV screens flickered in nearly every house.

By the second U.S. goal, Jose Angel Espinoza stood outside Alma's, chewing sunflower seeds and ruminating on the snake-bit quality of Mexican soccer. "They've never had the capacity to win the big game. Never, ever," said the 50-year-old native of Culiacan, Mexico.

"Truth be told, Mexico accomplished a lot," Espinoza said. "I didn't think they'd tie Italy, or beat Croatia. But the U.S., they went from being down and they raised themselves. They're a good team. Can they beat Germany? Why not? Of course they can. Who knows what's going to happen next. This has been the World Cup of surprises."

At Downtown Disney in Anaheim, Mexico native Jorge Acosta, 31, wore his green Mexico jersey with pride. He was pleased to see so many Mexico fans at the quintessentially American resort. Chants of "U-S-A, U-S-A" competed with cries of "si, se puede, si se puede," Spanish that translates roughly as "yes, we can."

"Mexico fans are true fans," Acosta said. "The Americans, if you ask them the names of their players, they can't tell you. They're only rooting for them because they made it this far. Mexico fans are passionate about every game."

About the only public place where fans of the U.S. team outnumbered Mexico boosters was at Staples Center Grand Reserve Club, where about 250 watched the game in an event sponsored by the Los Angeles Galaxy professional soccer team.

With so much pro-Mexico nostalgia, it was hard for some to root for their adopted home. Gilbert Duran was the only one to clap in the Hi D' Hi Lounge on La Verne Avenue at Whittier Boulevard, one of a few bars in East Los Angeles that remained open for the game. "I love Mexico, but the United States is the melting pot of all nationalities," said Duran, 49, whose ear-to-ear grin stood out in a crowd of dejected faces.

U.S. team fans were even more outnumbered in Tijuana, where Cesar Salazar, an L.A. construction worker, joined thousands looking for full-octane soccer mania--and a place to wager. "My heart is with Mexico, but my head says the U.S.," Salazar said as he sat in the Caliente betting parlor and waited for his $10 pro-U.S. wager to pay off. "The Americans are taller; the Mexicans have spirit but are too short."

There was no shortage of nationalism, which hung in the air like confetti. Flag-waving, face-painted crowds surged around the giant statue of Aztec ruler Cuauhtemoc. "Tijuana is the only place to be tonight!" shouted Martin Nguyen, a car appraiser from Santa Ana.

At Kalua's Nite Club in Huntington Park, patrons sat glumly.

"Que verguenza [What a shame]," said bartender Isidra San Juan. When a waitress came over, she handed her a few napkins.

"Go ahead. Cry. Cry," she told her.

"I don't cry for Mexico," the waitress replied. "I cry for my $100. I just lost a bet."

Afterward, only a few fans gathered at Pacific Boulevard and Florence Avenue, where past celebrations have ended in vandalism and violence.

"They were the only team I cared for," said Juan Carlos Plascencia, standing with friends outside the Gallo Giro restaurant. "It's over for me."

But others said they may soon be draped in American flags.

"This is my second country ... Mi patria" said Luis Donaldo Gutierrez. "U.S.A. all the way."

Times staff writers Manuel Gamiz, Richard Marosi, Tony Perry, David McKibben and Monte Morin contributed to this report.

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