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México lindo y querido

Even when Mexico's national team fails on the field, its supporters rally in the stands and never lose their fervent loyalty.

These are trying times to be a fan of El Tri. Just ask John Castañeda, a rabid soccer supporter in Chicago.

Mexico’s national team—known as “El Tri” for the country’s tri-colored flag—is going through a rough patch, threatening to jeopardize the squad’s qualification for the summer 2010 World Cup in South Africa. “We don’t have a team,” says Castañeda, 63, a native of Torreón, Mexico, and recently retired after three decades as a Chicago police officer. “We’ve been playing these stupid games with coaches, experimenting. Enough already!”

For decades, El Tri was the indisputable superpower in CONCACAF, the soccer organization encompassing North and Central America. But the United States has gained the upper hand in recent years, especially since defeating Mexico in the 2002 World Cup, leading to an intense U.S.-Mexico rivalry.

Mexico’s fortunes brightened, though, with a 2–1 triumph over the U.S. team in Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium on August 12. More than 100,000 ecstatic fans filled the site, chanting, “¡Sí se puede!” (“Yes, we can!”). The hard-fought victory helped the team gain ground in its battle for a spot at the World Cup, but the road ahead won’t be easy.

El Tri has suffered from turmoil at the top, going through some serious manager turnover. Hugo Sanchez, the Mexican player-legend, took over the job with much fanfare soon after the 2006 World Cup. He was then ousted in 2008 after failing to qualify for the Sydney Olympics. Sven-Goran Eriksson, a Swede who previously managed England’s national team, was brought in mid-2008 to revive the team’s fortunes, but El Tri continued to struggle and Eriksson was fired a year into the job.

Now Javier Aguirre, who managed the Mexican team during the 2002 World Cup in Japan/South Korea, has returned for a second stint. Aguirre is viewed as someone who should bring stability back to the team. But not long after he was hired, Aguirre started showing signs of the pressure: he was suspended for three games this summer after appearing to kick an opposing Panamanian player during a match. “My conduct was not good,” the coach said in his formal apology.

Border Crossing
But bad behavior hasn't diminished the fans’ loyalty, even when they move north of the border. El Tri regularly plays to sellout crowds in what seem to be “home” games across the United States. Fans wearing sombreros, their bodies and faces painted green, white, and red, beat drums, blow trumpets, wave flags and banners.

More than 80,000 people—the vast majority El Tri fans—packed the brand-new Cowboys Stadium outside Dallas this summer to watch Mexico pummel Haiti in a match in the Gold Cup, the region’s championship tournament. The crowd was so raucous that after the game Haiti’s coach told reporters, “With 80,000-plus cheering for Mexico, there were [Haitian] players whose legs were shaking.”

The U.S. national team rarely enjoys a home field advantage when playing games against Mexico, because El Tri fans almost always outnumber U.S. fans in cities such as Houston or Phoenix. The previous time the U.S. and Mexico met in a World Cup qualifier, the U.S. Soccer Federation sought to neutralize the Mexican fan impact by scheduling the game in Columbus, Ohio, which has a relatively small Latino community. The United States won handily, 2–0.

Gabriel Franco says going to see the Mexican team play live is a “beautiful” experience. “The pride you feel in the stadium is a marvelous thing,” says the 68-year-old restaurateur in Laguna Hills, California. Franco attends games whenever El Tri plays in the Los Angeles area. He also holds season tickets for Chivas USA, a Major League Soccer team that’s the U.S. counterpart to Mexico’s Chivas, a club Franco has rooted for since childhood.

Franco attributes El Tri’s woes to malinchismo, a Mexican term referring to a preference for foreigners and foreign things. In recent years, the Mexican team has drawn fire from fans and the country’s notoriously critical soccer media for recruiting naturalized Mexican citizens as players and for hiring an outsider like Eriksson, who had never coached in Mexico and didn’t speak Spanish when he took the manager’s job.

Yet, with veteran stars such as the elegant Rafael Marquez and the wily Cuauhtémoc Blanco, as well as up-and-comers like the nimble Giovani dos Santos, Mexico can never be counted out. The last time it failed to qualify for the World Cup was in 1990, and most experts agree that, despite its struggles, the team should make it through this time around. How well it does in South Africa next year, however, remains to be seen.

Franco says the current situation is a relajo, a disordered mess. “We have the talent to win, that’s the thing,” he laments. What’s lacking, he says, is organization and teamwork.

“Aguirre doesn’t have a lot of time,” he says. “I expect they'll qualify for the World Cup, and if they learn to play better, anything can happen.”

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