The World Cup soccer party suddenly has fizzled for Mexico, leaving the country face to face with a deepening economic crisis that had been set aside for the last three weeks in the artificial high of a winning team.
"The euphoria of Mexico is now over," acknowledged Felipe Torres, a downcast doorman describing his team's 4-1 defeat yesterday by West Germany.
The world championship tournament being hosted here has another week to go. But the Mexican team's quarterfinal loss has taken this country out of the competition. In doing so, it also has crushed for Mexicans the dream -- admittedly unreal but widely hoped for -- that they might go to the top in soccer even if they seem to be plunging toward the bottom in economics.
"There go our hopes," a policeman commented, shaking his head.
The glow of getting as far as they did, reminiscent of U.S. pride at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, had provided Mexicans with a welcome distraction from their already grave situation and the increased austerity measures under consideration by President Miguel de la Madrid and his government.
De la Madrid has reached a critical point in negotiations for new loans from the International Monetary Fund and mostly U.S. private creditor banks to refinance the country's $98 billion foreign debt. Although Mexico's economic proposals have not yet been completed, they are considered likely to contain pledges of still more budget-cutting over the next two years, further tightening belts that already are at their tightest in 15 years.
Mexico City's subway, for example, has announced that it will raise fares soon from 1 peso to 50 pesos to cut back on heavy government subsidies. Although still only the equivalent of 8 U.S. cents, the new fare breaks a 1-peso tradition that many Mexico City residents had come to expect as a heritage, the way New Yorkers cherished the 5-cent Staten Island ferry fare.
The controlled price of tortillas, the corn-flour pancakes that are the staple of Mexico's poor, has risen twice in the last two months in a similar effort to reduce costly government subsidies as part of IMF requirements for more loans. At the same time, the Commerce and Industrial Promotion Ministry announced Friday that the price of eggs is going up 35 percent.
Overall inflation has been estimated at 70 percent, cutting deeply into the living standard of Mexico's 78 million inhabitants.
"We have reached the limit of what the people can bear," a senior government official said recently.
In what was seen as an expression of discontent over the economic measures, de la Madrid was booed by soccer fans as he presided over the May 31 opening game of the World Cup tournament. A week later, he took the unusual step of submitting to a folksy television interview in which he discussed the travails of high office in a relaxed way but warned Mexicans that recovery remains several years away.
Officials in the presidency and other government agencies, reading the mood of discontent, repeatedly had expressed concern that crowds could turn violent when Mexico lost, perhaps venting their frustration against the government by rioting. Some officials in de la Madrid's office ordered a study of this possibility last month to help them determine how to handle crowd control, according to one of the officials.
Instead, most Mexicans who took to the streets last night after the loss tried their best to celebrate anyway. German and Mexican fans fought briefly in Monterrey, site of the game, leading to arrests of 15 Germans and a Mexican, press reports said. But in the capital, where the potential for politically oriented violence was highest, the mood was of regret more than resentment.
"We have to be good losers," a woman said as a bandmaster led his audience of about 500 through a shaky rendition of the national anthem.
Some youths drove through the city honking horns and waving flags. A bride and groom sitting in a miniature red convertible drove triumphantly down Paseo de la Reforma, the capital's Fifth Avenue.
But most gathered at bandstands set up by authorities and listened to music punctuated by forced cheers of "Viva Mexico!" Merchants with bags full of plastic merrymaking horns found few customers. The street reaction to Mexico's loss turned out to be markedly more subdued than reactions to its earlier victories, in which thousands of persons were arrested.
"With the defeat, reality took over," wrote the newspaper Uno Mas Uno. "The euphoria of 23 days has ended and we will have to live with the consequences now that the football curtain has fallen."
Aware that the consequences are not gay, de la Madrid's government will seek to suspend payments temporarily on part of the debt to enable him to portray the move as a gesture of political resistance on behalf of the people, a knowledgeable diplomatic source predicted.
Mexican officials and newspapers have cast the IMF and private banks in the role of ogres, taking resources from Mexico, while assigning the government the role of champion struggling against them.
The temporary halt in debt payments, according to the diplomat, would be worked out in negotiations with the IMF and private banks rather than being declared unilaterally. But it still will give the president a chance to play his champion role at a time when the country needs it, he added.