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Pause for the Cause in Mexico

June 22, 2006|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Midway through Mexico's World Cup contest against Portugal, Felipe Calderon made his play of the day. "I will be the jobs president," the candidate declared in a 30-second spot to millions of Mexicans watching the televised match.

Scattered jeering erupted in the zocalo, this city's giant downtown plaza, with tens of thousands watching on a stadium-sized screen. Minutes later, an ad by Calderon's rival, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, fell flat, drawing no response from the crowd.

For the moment, Mexico's close and bitter campaign for the July 2 election is just background noise.

"It doesn't cross my mind," said Fernando Cruz, a 23-year-old pizza deliverer. "All we care about now is soccer."

The country has ground to a halt for each of the national team's three World Cup matches in Germany. An estimated 32 million people -- nearly one-third of the population -- have followed the daytime contests on TV or radio. Workplace productivity has plummeted.

Mexicans gather to watch in cafes, at taxi stands and in outdoor plazas, turning the matches into collective nail-biting experiences.

Wednesday's crowd in the zocalo, swollen by an army of souvenir vendors, painted their faces red, white and green, the national colors, and chanted "Si, se puede!" (Yes, we can!) with each advance on the Portuguese goal. An indigenous performer named Coatzalli pounded a drum in an Aztec ritual to ward off evil Portuguese spirits.

At the end of the match, the multitude dispersed in silence, except for a few hundred fans who worked themselves into a momentary frenzy for television cameras. Mexico lost, 2-1, but managed a lackluster passage to the next round of the tournament.

"We should have won," President Vicente Fox declared on television after the match. "But the triumphs are yet to come. We will see some goals."

The mood in the zocalo was not so hopeful. Mexico's next foe is Argentina, and the loser of Saturday's match will be out of the tournament.

"Then we'll have time to listen to our presidential candidates and decide who to vote for," said Jesus Romero, 38, who was selling noisemakers in the crowd.

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