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Mexico shows U.S. is no match in soccer

Mexico's 2-1 victory in a World Cup qualifying match brings relief to a nation determined to retain its superiority over the U.S. in the sport.

August 13, 2009|Tracy Wilkinson

MEXICO CITY — What does relief sound like? Across Mexico on Wednesday, it was millions of soccer fans shouting "GOOOAAALLLL!" as their national team scored late in the game to defeat the formidable Americans, 2-1. Gracias a dios, disaster averted.

Mexico, at any time, is passionate about the revered sport. Throw in the long string of bad news whipping the country -- a bloodcurdling drug war, a deadly flu epidemic -- and the patriotic emotions caught up in facing that big, powerful neighbor to the north, and you have the ingredients for obsession.

But this time there was dread as well. National pride was on the line, self-esteem would be measured by the performance of a team that has not had the best of seasons. And the Americans were on a roll, injecting a fear of the unthinkable: that Mexico's unbeaten record at home against the U.S. could end.

Confronting the U.S. teases out all those ambivalent feelings that Mexicans have about Americans -- a kind of inferiority complex tinged with envy, disdain, admiration, resentment, born of past U.S. interference and fierce Mexican nationalism.

"Beating the United States is like taking back Texas," said architect Manuel Ortiz, 35, in a huge crowd of people descending on Mexico City's gilded, iconic Angel de la Independencia statue to celebrate the victory in the World Cup qualifying match. "Today is a national holiday."

The day didn't start out that way. The Americans scored first, and the Mexican comeback was not realized until substitute Miguel Sabah scored the late goal for the victory.

"Si se puede!" the fans chanted. Yes, we can!

"At least in this, we are better than they are," said Alvaro Santoyo, 50, smiling broadly as he emerged from the Azteca Stadium in a crush of jubilant fans.

Mexican fans booed the American anthem when it was played at the start of the match; then Mexico City bloggers debated whether that was appropriate.

Lest anyone think this was just a game, listen to sports broadcaster Jorge Garcia, speaking earlier Wednesday on Radio MVS: "Today we are playing for the fatherland. We are playing for territory. We are going to show who is the best. Today, Mexico is one."

Even the president, Felipe Calderon, got in on the act: "Mexico competes against other nations in economy, in opportunities, in development. And in soccer."

A nation that rarely unites on anything seemed to come together to follow the match, whether on television, radio or the Internet. (A popular TV news anchor whose afternoon broadcast started at the same time as the game looked into the camera and said, essentially, hey, I know no one is actually watching me today.)

The packed Azteca Stadium, awash in team-color green, hummed like a giant beehive, a high-pitched and nonstop drone punctuated by roars each time El Tricolor, as the Mexicans are known, drove into "la area gringa," as the Mexican announcer put it.

Mexico City's notorious traffic became as thin as its notorious high-altitude air. Mexicans were transfixed in offices, in crowded restaurants offering two-for-one beer, in hospital wards. Taxi drivers hunkered down at their stands, watching the contest as they downed Cokes and French fries.

No matter -- no one was going anywhere until it was all over. Newspapers pronounced the encounter "the battle of the year!" and declared Landon Donovan, the U.S. team's speedy forward, "public enemy No. 1." Ahead of the contest, soap opera stars were called on to prognosticate and television variety shows cheered on the team, their entire casts dressed in green.

At the San Gabriel Arcangel church, where a statue of Jesus named the Holy Child of Miracles is dressed in a green soccer jersey, the faithful prayed for the team's victory.

And victory, in the end, was sweet, even though Mexico (at home) has always defeated the U.S., apart from one tie. But the U.S. team is much improved, and Mexico has suffered some embarrassing losses to supposedly lesser, Central American squads.

"The Virgin of Guadalupe gave us a miracle," said 19-year-old student Carlos Cortez. "This is a historic day because few people thought Mexico could do it."

Forget all the bad news, Mexicans were saying; forget the U.S.-Mexico trade disputes and the tensions over illegal immigration.

"Ours is a clash of two cultures, brothers but not very good friends," Adam Arenas, a 29-year-old doctor, said outside the stadium, referring to the Mexico-U.S. rivalry. "I enjoy beating them more than any other team, because of our history."

--

wilkinson@latimes.com

Cecilia Sanchez and Deborah Bonello of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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