Reporting from Mexico City —
Mexico is preparing, essentially, to shut down this week when its (sometimes) cherished El Tri national soccer team opens the 2010 World Cup in the inaugural match with host country South Africa.
Businesses and government offices are being advised to go ahead and let their employees watch the game at work. Otherwise, they're being told, don't expect the workers to show up at all.
Same with schools. To avoid widespread absenteeism, Education Secretary Alonso Lujambio said, TV sets will be placed in classrooms and students and teachers will be allowed to watch. "Of course our normal education routine will continue," he said.
The game will air here at 9 a.m. Friday.
More than 9,000 Mexicans are traveling to South Africa to attend the games, the Mexican Consulate in Johannesburg said. The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico offered a prayer for the team. After days of rumor, President Felipe Calderon announced that he would attend the opening match, leaving behind the nettlesome domestic problems of drug violence and economic stagnation and probably hoping to take advantage of a photo op with South African icon Nelson Mandela.
Last week the vendors who populate every intersection here in Mexico City began peddling black and green team jerseys (most said to be cut-rate knockoffs). Restaurants will open early Friday to host crowds of game viewers (it was unclear whether they will be providing two-for-one tequila shots, given the morning hour). Appliance stores, cellphone companies, even airlines are offering discounts and prizes, the bigger and better the further Mexico advances. Burger King is giving away hamburgers if Mexico defeats South Africa on Friday.
A huge television screen will be set up in the massive downtown Zocalo, or central plaza. Never mind that the Zocalo is currently taken over by large groups of rather angry striking teachers and electrical workers. The city government is assuring World Cup officials that the plaza will be cleared of strikers and other unwanted denizens in time for kickoff so that Mexico can join in an internationally televised FIFA Fan Fest.
"We are completely guaranteeing that this event will take place peacefully and tranquilly," city Tourism Secretary Alejandro Rojas Diaz Duran said. (Translation: Brace yourselves.)
Mexico has a somewhat ambivalent relationship with soccer. As popular as the sport undoubtedly is, the organizations behind the teams have at times been politicized and corrupted. A popular player was nearly killed this year when he was shot in the head at a nightclub, allegedly by a shady businessman who remains at large.
"Soccer is usually a mirror to a nation," Agustin Basave, an academic at the Ibero-American University, wrote this week. "The real problem is our cultural vices, which keep us stuck in underdevelopment."
To wit, he listed a lack of self-confidence and concentration, an inferiority complex, a tendency to choke. Mexico, he noted, historically has not done particularly well in competition for the world championship.
Still, there are glimmers of hope. Mexico probably has its strongest national team ever, a squad that for the first time has no fewer than 10 players employed by European clubs. And though pre-World Cup friendly matches don't count, everyone here took note that Mexico defeated current title holder Italy last week.
Mexico's coach, Javier Aguirre, said in remarks broadcast Wednesday that, win or lose, he believed he had built a remarkable team.
"We are unified, with a real desire to transcend," he said. He was interviewed on the Mexican Televisa network by a popular morning talk show host and another TV broadcaster dressed as a clown in a lime-green wig. (Yes, this is taken seriously here.)
Spanish sports expert Ezequiel Juariste, commenting on the website Goal.com, said, "Mexico is heart, Mexico is the explosion of its forwards, Mexico is the strength of its air game.
"Mexico is a country tired of not being able to show on the Big Day the progress it has made in the last decade."