Francisco Trejo has many interests. His family, his business and carne asada are three that immediately come to mind.
But he has just one passion: Mexico's national soccer team.
"He'd rather lose his wife," a buddy says, "than have Mexico lose a soccer game."
In Trejo's circle of friends that's not only considered a compliment, but it's also not that unusual. Esteban Castillo once considered skipping mortgage and car payments to watch Mexico play a meaningless game in the Caribbean. And don't bother asking him where he would go should his daughter's wedding fall on the same day that Mexico was playing an important match.
Trejo and Castillo are hardly alone. Hard numbers are impossible to come by, but marketing experts and promoters estimate that well over half of the 29.4 million Mexican Americans follow Mexico's team in some form.
That dwarfs the fan base claimed by any U.S.-based sports franchise, including the famed Red Sox Nation, largely because the Mexican team represents a real nation.
"It's part national pride and it's part sports fanaticism," says Adam R. Jacobson, a Miami-based Latino-market consultant and former editor of the weekly Hispanic Sports Business newsletter. "This is the Mexican national team. So you're dealing with people coming together to not only support a team, but to support their heritage."
Castillo has a simpler explanation. "This," he says, "is like an addiction."
And like most addictions, it's a costly one. Castillo, who has saved the ticket stubs from the more than 300 games he has seen the Mexican team play on four continents over the last 24 years, estimates that the trips have cost him well over $300,000.
"When I see my tickets I say, 'Damn, that's a lot of money here. I wish I could have it in my pocket. Or at least in the checking account,' " says Castillo, who named a son after a player on his favorite Mexican club team.
Neither Trejo nor Castillo will be in New Jersey on Friday when Mexico meets Ecuador in a World Cup warmup at New Meadowlands Stadium. But they sat together among the 90,526 fans who packed the Rose Bowl on a cold, rainy night in March for Mexico's exhibition game against New Zealand. Both are also part of a group of about five dozen Californians who have paid $8,000 a person to watch Mexico play in this summer's World Cup in South Africa.
It will be the sixth World Cup trip for both, and though that places them among the most active of Mexican soccer fans, their fanaticism is far from rare in the U.S.
In recent years, that following has expanded. Friday's Mexico-Ecuador game is expected draw a sellout of 75,000 to New Meadowlands Stadium. In March, Mexico drew more than 63,000 for a midweek exhibition against Iceland in Charlotte, N.C. And if ticket sales for next week's friendlies in Chicago and Houston continue apace, the Mexican team will have played 10 games in the U.S. before crowds of at least 51,000 in the last 11 months.
The U.S. national soccer team has drawn three crowds that size at home over the last year — and the largest of those was for a game against Mexico in July.
Which is why major companies such as Home Depot, Budweiser, AT&T, Napa Auto Parts, Wrigley, McDonald's and Makita lined up behind Mexico, then heaved a huge sigh of relief when the team overcame a slow start and qualified for the World Cup last summer.
"There was discussion a year ago that if Mexico didn't get in, it was going to be disastrous. In the United States," Jacobson says. Companies "didn't align themselves with the U.S. team. They aligned themselves with the Mexican national team because they saw the fan fervor in markets like Chicago and Atlanta and Los Angeles. Even Seattle."
It's a fan base that, Jacobson says, "is anything but hidden."
But just how deep it has grown has surprised even those tasked with tapping into that passion.
"The thing that's unique about the Mexican national team is the [fan base] is an entire population. The Mexican national team is part of people's DNA from birth," says Doug Quinn, president of Soccer United Marketing, the New York-based company that promotes both the U.S. and Mexican national teams in this country.
And that fan base has grown not only because the Mexican American population in the U.S. has increased by more than a third in the last decade, but also because many in that community are now more comfortable with their ethnic background.
"The one thing that has dramatically changed in the past 10 years is that Mexicans are very proud of their heritage," Quinn says.
Juan Tovar, a 38-year-old soccer fan from Monterey Park, agrees. Born to Mexican parents in Chicago, Tovar grew up in East Los Angeles and attended Garfield High, where he played baseball and football.
"I loved soccer," he says. "But back then you didn't want to be called wetback, you didn't want to be called all these other things. And you couldn't speak Spanish in school. It wasn't as popular or culturally accepted the way it is now."