Living in Mexico is dangerous, my friends advised. My mind might have drifted back to that one afternoon when, out running an errand, I heard a sudden cry as people started running urgently past me. But I know that cry. Every football fan knows it – dozens of people had just seen their team score. I followed the crowds to a cafe. On the wall, an elderly TV showed Hernández pegging the Dutch back a goal with a fine header. People hung on, hoping for more, but it wasn’t to be; the Netherlands hung on for a 2-1 win in this world cup warm-up and the crowd drifted away.
The Mexicans are passionate about their national team. On match days, there are plenty of green shirts in evidence. The shops are full of products with world cup branding – even my sliced pan has a picture of a guy in a Mexico jersey with a football at his feet and a sandwich in his hand (an image for the ages, you’ll agree). The games are early here, the late start at 1:30, so there are TVs everywhere. When Mexico is playing, you can hear every shot in the cheers and gasps from conference rooms and offices around the building. The great Latin cry of goooooooooooooooooooal (unfamiliar to some of those used to Anglophone commentators) brings the hold-outs scurrying from their work to the nearest shrine.
When Mexico isn’t involved, the games don’t draw much interest. The other day, I watched England stagger helplessly towards the flight home over a fine plate of Pollo alla Milanese. The Mexicans couldn’t care less, ignoring the flickering image of a forlorn Rooney or a wild shot from Gerrard on the counter in favour of food and conversation. Certainly, there are football fans here, but they’re thinner on the ground than you might expect.
The privilege of participating in the opening match was lost in those early-tournament jitters. Rumours flittered about that FIFA would favour the hosts, and a bullish attitude gave way to those fears as South Africa went a goal up in the second half. The atmosphere grew increasingly nervous as the match wore on, every half chance met with a short-lived shriek, more hope than premature celebration. National treasure Cuauhtémoc Blanco (rumoured to shortly become a UNESCO World Heritage Site) was let out of his cage to try to salvage something from the game. Then, with only twelve minutes left, Marquez neatly trapped a cross and made the room explode.
The relief at the draw seemed to buoy Mexican spirits, and they tore into France with a will. France, for their part, looked disinterested and disorganized. The 2-0 win didn’t flatter Mexico, though it was celebrated wildly. Without Zidane, the French no longer have a player who can win a game at this level in spite of themselves.
Suspicious that the Mexico-Uruguay game was a lame duck, the bookies offered short odds on the draw which would seem them both through. Second place however would mean a likely pairing with Argentina in the next round. The Mexicans had other ideas, coming out fighting. This Uruguay team are no pushovers though, and for the first time, the Mexicans watched a game in total silence, nails chewed ragged, one eye on France-South Africa. Mixed feelings greeted the French fight-back – yes, the South African goal difference was eroded, but could France yet win? NO! The final whistle was greeted with cheers. Argentina it is then – so be it. There’s fighting spirit here: you’ll never beat the Mexicans.