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In Mexico, Soccer Has Become a Political Piñata

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 1998; Page B8

MEXICO CITY — Mexico's national soccer team traditionally is known affectionately as The Tricolor — a patriotic reference to the country's green, white and orange flag. This year the squad has a new nickname: The Tritanic.

And fans are abandoning ship in droves.

In a country beset by scandal, political upheaval and a battered economy, Mexicans have long sought solace in soccer, their greatest sports passion and pastime.

But not this year.

Now, even Mexico's favored form of escapism has been unable to escape the imbroglio of politics, nagging allegations of corruption and public repudiation that has entangled virtually every other major institution in the country.

National team coach Bora Milutinovic was fired at the end of the World Cup qualifying rounds last November after a brutal public flogging spurred by the country's two feuding television giants, who used Milutinovic as the political soccer ball in their own wars. And when the team continued to lose under its new coach, fans and other media turned on him, accusing him of overplaying some team members to increase their price to foreign recruiters and thereby win fatter commissions for himself — charges never validated.

Now, just weeks away from the World Cup, Mexican soccer fans couldn't be less excited.

"This is the first time in the history of Mexican soccer that fans have turned their back on the national team," said Ricardo Castillo, a sportswriter for the Mexico City daily, The News. "Everybody knows they will lose, everybody talks openly about that."

But Castillo doesn't see that as such a bad thing. "It's better that everybody sees the truth and reality rather than living a lie," he said. "As in politics, we were living a public lie. Everybody knew the PRI [ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party] was stealing elections to stay in power. . . . It's good that the team will lose: We will be breaking one more of our myths."

The soccer myth developed oddly and slowly. Mexico has some wealthy and successful club teams and many talented players, but the nation's World Cup success is spotty at best. Mexico has a 7-18-8 record in World Cup matches. Until the 1994 World Cup, Mexico only advanced past the first round in 1970 and 1986 — years in which the nation hosted the tournament.

With on-field expectations waning for 1998, the biggest sport in Mexico now is the psychoanalysis of Mexicans and their relationship with the national sport.

"When there is a crisis of values and heroes, when there are no strong political figures to follow, people lean on soccer or other symbols," said Claudia Rivas, a sports psychologist who is organizing the upcoming International Congress of Sports Psychology to be held here. "Players become heroes, and people with low self-esteem — a widespread problem in Mexico — put all their hopes in the game. A defeat of their team is a reflection of their own failures."

This is a nation where sidewalk vendors sell dolls of the once-revered ex-president wearing prison stripes and clutching money bags, and where the average Mexican worker is still suffering from the peso crash of more than three years ago. Soccer — or futbol, as it is called here — was one of the last great refuges for the battered national psyche.

Milutinovic, who coached the U.S. team in the 1994 World Cup, led Mexico to a sixth-place finish in the 1986 World Cup. That was Mexico's best showing ever, which is partly why Milutinovic returned as the Mexican national team coach in August 1995. Then, the country was at the depths of its worst economic crisis in six decades and in dire need of national heroes.

Throughout the 1997 qualifying season, however, the team floundered in a series of mediocre performances against teams it was favored to beat. The greatest humiliation came last November: Usually a powerhouse at home, Mexico tied the Unites States, 0-0, in Mexico City. Although the tie clinched a berth for Mexico in the 1998 World Cup finals, the Tricolor was expected to win easily and fans were so disgusted that they refused to participate in the usual victory rally at the monument of the Angel of Independence in downtown Mexico City.

Instead, "Fuera Bora, Fuera Bora!" became the fan chant, which translates to "Bora out, Bora out!"

With the embarrassing show against the United States, the media battering began with a vengeance. Throughout the year, the national network, Televisa, and the newer network, TV Azteca, had taken turns savaging Milutinovic. When one network came to his defense, the other would launch a new assault. Every few weeks, they switched sides, with Milutinovic bearing the brunt of abuse from one or the other.

A few days after the fateful match against the U.S. team, defender Claudio Suarez declared that the team was a victim of the war between the TV networks. The problem with soccer, Suarez declared, is that it has become part of "various aspects of everyday life in Mexico, like politics, business and society [and] that has damaged the essence of the sport."

The next home game, against Costa Rica, drew one of the smallest crowds ever for a national match, with many fans saying that they were present only because they'd been given free tickets. Banners demanding "Bora out" were waved across the sparsely filled 120,000-seat stadium as the game finished in another humiliating tie, 3-3.

By the end of November, Milutinovic, with a record of 21-12-14, was out as coach and Manuel Lapuente, a former national team coach who had been coaching a professional team, was named to replace him.

But the criticism did not stop. The national media pounced on Lapuente as well, noting that during his previous stint as national coach in 1991, he once stalked out of a game his team was losing, leaving the players to fend for themselves during part of the second half. Meanwhile, Milutinovic has been hired to coach Nigeria in this year's World Cup.

In one key aspect, however, Mexican fans are no different than sports fans worldwide, argued sportswriter Castillo.

"What the audience wants is goals and great victories," Castillo said. "They want a team that wins all the time, so they are hard to please."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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