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Fans of Mexico's World Cup team are cautiously optimistic

They don't seem prepared to set their hopes high because of the team's disappointing showings in previous tournaments.

May 16, 2010|By Kevin Baxter

Reporting from Mexico City -- There is a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron of Mexican Catholics, hidden in the tunnel that links the locker room to the playing field at Estadio Azteca. But she hasn't brought the home team much luck lately.

In the two World Cup tournaments played since Pope John Paul blessed the shrine during a visit to the stadium, Mexico failed to make it past the second round. Then again, Mexico failed to make it past the second round in the three World Cup tournaments played before the Pope stopped by.

That hasn't dimmed the faith of Mexico's fans, though, in the team or in Guadalupe. Whether that faith will be rewarded this summer, however, is a subject of fierce debate.

On Sunday, Mexico's national team said goodbye to its faithful with a 1-0 win over a sloppy Chilean team in front of a raucous sellout crowd at Azteca. Alberto Medina's goal 14 minutes into the game was all Mexico needed for its third consecutive 1-0 win, running its unbeaten streak to 10 games dating to September.

The team leaves Tuesday for two weeks of training in Europe before heading to South Africa, where it opens play in the World Cup on June 11.

And it's going there with higher expectations than perhaps any Mexican team in recent memory. A public opinion poll published last weekend shows a slim majority of Mexicans believe the team will reach the tournament's quarterfinals, something it has done only twice. The team has promised at least that much.

"Do something distinct," Coach Javier Aguirre said. "That's the idea."

Not everyone thinks Aguirre has more than a prayer of making that happen.

The polls, says Raziel Sanchez, a hardcore but jaded Mexican soccer fan, reflect what people believe with their hearts but not with their brains.

"Is it not a question of faith to believe that Mexico can do better than it's ever done?" said Sanchez, a financial advisor. "Preparing the same way as they have for the last 20 years, it's very probable we're going to get the same results."

Two days before Mexico's farewell game, Sanchez and three like-minded friends met at a rooftop restaurant near Mexico City's trendy Zona Rosa district to talk about the national team's World Cup chances. They're hopeful, they agreed, but not optimistic. Supportive, but not irrational.

Mexico is on its fourth coach since the last World Cup tournament. Nearly half its projected starting lineup is still in Europe and won't join the team until less than a month before its World Cup opener. And two of the top teams in the world are in its first-round group.

"We don't have a history of winning," said Israel Luengas, a communications consultant. "It's fatalistic. We have an expectation to lose.

"We're realists. I love soccer. But I can't say I believe in a team that has only three weeks to come together."

Those in Luengas' group aren't the only Mexicans expecting another disappointing World Cup. Martin Castillo, who played in Mexico's second division and is now a chauffeur, also wonders where the fans' optimism is coming from.

"What are they smoking?" he said. "That's what I've been asking."

So Castillo, speaking objectively he says, invokes his own religious icon.

"I would like to see, with all my heart, that Mexico plays at least four games," he said. "But like [Doubting] Thomas, until I see it I won't believe it."

His prediction?

"Three games and adios," he said.

Which would be a historic performance of a different kind since Mexico hasn't been eliminated in group play in 32 years

And if that were to happen, Luengas insists, people would be disappointed but they'd take it in stride.

"Nothing much will happen," Luengas said. "Because that's happened before. We know how to lose.

"The question is, what's going to happen if we win?"

The players will have elementary schools and streets named after them, Luengas says. But the celebrations could go on so long, he joked, factories and offices would have to close those doors for a few days.

"That's going to be a problem," he said.

Bigger for some than others. If Mexico wins five games, something it has never done, one electronics store has promised to pay back customers who buy high-definition TVs. And if Mexico wins four games, a chain of auto dealers will make the fourth month's payment for anyone who buys a car from it.

In that case, they'd better get their checkbooks ready, says Justino Compean, president of the Mexican soccer federation.

Speaking recently in front of the team and Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Compean made it clear where his faith lies.

"Our promise," he said, "is the fifth game and more."

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