Much of Mexico puts regular routines aside to watch World Cup

The 32-team tournament showcases intense soccer action and attracts the most passionate fans in the world.
By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 11, 2010; 1:26 PM

MEXICO CITY -- Traffic was light Friday morning in one of the most dense urban environments on the planet, as a taxicab sped down the side streets of the Zona Rosa, the Mexican capital's downtown district of hotels, clubs and cafes. And then the city started moaning, sighing, shouting. It sounded like dental surgery or marital bliss, depending on who had the ball.

It had begun.

As the first game in the 2010 World Cup series got underway, with a fresh-faced Mexico squad squaring off against the hosts, South Africa, Mexico City ground to a halt and watched.

Many stores were shuttered for the duration of the game. Office workers lingered outside their buildings, grabbing a coffee or a beer and malingering in front of TV sets.

Schoolchildren were hustled into classrooms and auditoriums, where televisions were on. The education minister had ordered all schools to broadcast the game live -- so that students would show up for school, rather than ditch to watch the opener at home.

Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard had jumbo screens set up in the city center, the famous Zocalo, where a morning throng shared space with an encampment of protesting workers from an electricians union.

"We just need to get out of this first game alive," said Francisco Padilla Perez, who was sitting with two friends in a taco joint in the Zona Rosa during the first half. He predicted that if Mexico won, the weekend would start immediately. "We'll buy beers!" he said. If they lost, "it'll be like a funeral."

At sidewalk tables in front of a chic hotel, a group of bodyguards watched the game, the earpieces of their radios dangling. When South Africa broke the deadlock at the 55th minute as South African striker Siphiwe Tshabalala sent a rocket ship into Mexico's goal, you could hear hisses all down Amberes Street.

President Felipe Calderón attended the opening game, though there was some grumbling from wags on editorial pages about the high costs of taking the presidential jet and entourage to South Africa as Mexico continues to struggle through the fumes of economic slowdown. In the capital, street vendors waved Mexican flags, but no one was buying. Big-box stores such as Sam's Club were promising free TVs to lucky customers if Mexico won. Burger King promised a free lunch. But it was not to be.

Mexico came back with a clever bit of footwork and a tie goal from Rafa Márquez. The police turned on their sirens. But as the game ended with a 1-1 draw, it was mostly back to work, and no free burgers.

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