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WORLD CUP SOCCER

World Cup Dreams Run Dry in Mexico

Soccer: After team's 2-0 defeat by Americans, the capital is largely silent as residents mourn yet another loss to their superpower neighbor.

June 18, 2002|RICHARD BOUDREAUX and CHRIS KRAUL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MEXICO CITY — Fernando de Victoria strutted among 500 anxious fans jammed into Yarda's sports bar in the wee hours of Monday, doubling as waiter and cheerleader for Mexico's soccer team. The United States was up 1-0, and it was his job to blow a referee's whistle every few minutes to shatter the gloom.

But for long stretches of the World Cup match televised from South Korea, the whistle was the loudest sound in the bar, and after Mexico fell behind 2-0, the waiter despaired and put it away.

That's the way Mexico's promising start in the 32-nation tournament ended: goal-less and in silence.

The joyous postgame mini-riots here that accompanied the team's triumphant march through the first round did not recur after Monday's knockout loss. There were no fireworks, no looting, no injuries, no mass arrests.

There was only a humiliating fact: The powerful neighbor that historically has dominated the Mexicans in so many ways--militarily, economically and in every major sport but soccer--had whipped them at their national pastime.

"It's a return to reality, to frustration--our only true national sentiment," said Jesus Orduna, a sociologist in the southern state of Chiapas.

Newspapers that had delayed their press runs by several hours for the game etched the defeat in bold headlines. "An American Nightmare," said the sports tabloid Esto. "The Dream Ended," declared La Cronica de Hoy.

"There is silence everywhere," said Maria Rosa Nieto, an actuary in the Mexican capital's financial district. "People don't want to talk."

The funk hit Edna Espinoza, who sells cardboard boxes to factories. "You notice it," she said. "There is less energy, no flags, no horns honking."

Arturo Garcia, a financial analyst at Colgate Palmolive consumer products here, said employees were less productive than usual, less friendly, more irritable. "A lot of people didn't even come to work," he said.

In the hangover of defeat, Mexicans faulted the team's sub-par play and an apparent American foul that the referee had missed. But mostly they faulted themselves for succumbing to delusions.

A surprising 92% of those polled by a television network here had predicted that their team would win Monday, even though Mexico had lost four of its previous five matches to the steadily improving Americans. Some fans had already made plans for watching Friday quarterfinals against Germany, convinced that Mexico--not the United States--would advance to that match.

"Mexicans have a right to dream, at least in soccer, because we cannot dream about real life," Joaquin Lopez Doriga, a news anchor for Radio Formula, told his audience Monday.

"We let ourselves dream, we pursued our dream together, and now let's go together in disappointment," he said.

President Vicente Fox gave his team and his country a televised pep talk after staying up with his Cabinet to watch the match.

"In no way do we feel defeated," Fox said. "The important thing is to fight, fight, fight with tenacity.... Better times will come. They will come."

Seeking to defuse nationalist tensions over the match, Fox and President Bush spoke by phone from their ranches Sunday to wish each other's team well.

But many Mexicans viewed the match as nothing less than the latest battle in a long struggle against America's superpower domination.

"We got carried away by thinking of this match as revenge for the way the Americans mistreat our immigrants and fight over our water," said Hector Garcia Mendoza, a Mexico City taxi driver struggling to stay awake after being up all night. "It's not just that we lost," he added. "It's whom we lost to."

At Yuppie's in Mexico City's Zona Rosa, one of thousands of Mexican bars that were packed for the match, many viewers shouted obscenities when "The Star-Spangled Banner" was played.

Screams of anger greeted Brian McBride's goal for the United States eight minutes into the match. After a few seconds of depression, the crowd began chanting, "Mexico! Mexico!"

But Landon Donovan's goal late in the game brought a hush. Men wept and pulled green Team Mexico jerseys over their faces.

At the capital's Angel of Independence monument, where tens of thousands rallied after Mexico's first round successes, only about 300 bothered to show up Monday.

Some tried to extract political capital out of wounded national pride.

"Now we don't owe water! Now we don't owe water!" they chanted on TV, urging the government to default on its 480-billion-gallon debt to Texas reservoirs along the Rio Grande.

Many Mexicans stumbling to work Monday said that they felt no hostility toward the United States and that the game was just a game. Even so, they said, it was more painful to lose to the Americans than to anyone else.

"Do you really think your team is better than Italy?" Marco Rivera, a 22-year-old restaurant worker, asked an American. "We tied Italy, nearly beat them, and Italy has won the World Cup three times. And then you beat us. Soccer is our sport, not yours. How can that happen?"

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