Reporting from Mexico City — Three days before Mexico faced powerhouse Argentina in the World Cup knockout phase, the new Argentine ambassador here happened to be presenting her credentials to Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
"I told the president, 'May the best team win,' " Patricia Vaca recalled. "He said, 'No, no, may Mexico win!' "
Mexicans go into Sunday's game fully aware that they are the underdog against fabled Argentina. They are torn between national pride that whispers "just maybe" and the louder voice that says "no way."
The World Cup qualifying shuffle that pitted Mexico against Argentina revived deep-seated Mexican feelings of inadequacy — even as those sentiments were tinted with awe for best-on-the-planet Lionel Messi, the larger-than-life Diego Maradona and the great Albicelestes (white-and-sky-blue), as the Argentine team is known.
"Mexico does not have the weapons to win against a team like Argentina," Jose Ramon Fernandez, one of Mexico's top sports commentators, said in a radio interview. "Argentina has talented players and a good game. What does Mexico have? Nothing. It will look ridiculous."
One Mexican newspaper survey had more than two-thirds of Mexicans predicting that their team would lose. The social media networks were full of dire assessments. Even Mexico's 2-0 defeat of France had more to do with the implosion of the French team than any talent from Mexico, said the chattering masses.
(This, from "Carlos" on Twitter: Cheer up friends! Better to prepare for the defeat and then it won't hurt so badly.)
Miffed, star defender Rafael Marquez weighed in to say that he had had enough of the gloom and doom. As Mexicans, he said, we allow pessimism to defeat us. He spoke of the national inferiority complex and urged his compatriots to shelve it.
"Unfortunately sometimes we don't seem to believe in ourselves, and that's the extra 'plus' that other teams have," Marquez said in a news conference in Pretoria, South Africa. "And not just in football. We need to change that mentality and do the best we can in order to be great."
He added: "Yeah, it's Argentina. So what?"
As Vaca, the Argentine ambassador, pointed out, Mexico is home to thousands of Argentines, which will make for some up-close-and-personal rivalry come game time Sunday. Mexico has often welcomed Latin America's outcasts, and Argentines sought refuge here from brutal military juntas in the 1970s and '80s and, again, during Argentina's more recent economic collapse.
Overall, this World Cup has been very good for Latin Americans. Six of the seven Latin American teams that started out advanced to the second round (the exception: unlikely Honduras). Five of the surviving teams are from South America (Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile and Brazil), a record-high representation for that continent.
And as Uruguay's struggle to conquer South Korea on Saturday proved, anything can happen. Uruguay prevailed, 2-1, but it was no walk in the park against what was widely considered a weaker team.
Maybe Mexicans should take heart in that. Exactly four years ago, in the same round-of-16 stage of the World Cup, Mexico faced Argentina amid similarly negative forecasts. But a scrappy Mexican squad managed to hold Argentina to a tie through regulation play, before the Argentines finally won in overtime.
Mexico's coach then was Ricardo La Volpe — an Argentine.
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.