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The Labyrinth of Fútbol

The dreams of reason are intolerable.

--Octavio Paz

WHILE AMERICAN SOCCER FANS TOOK LAST week's quarterfinal loss to Germany in stride and even took some pride in it, Mexicans saw their team's loss to the U.S. as much more than a defeat: It was a sign of their own cultural flaws.

It's that deeply rooted feeling of mediocrity, thinkers in Mexico say, the fatalism so masterfully written about by the late poet Octavio Paz in The Labyrinth of Solitude and other works. The team, like the country itself, is full of talent but seems to lack the guts -- the desire -- to win. It's an attitude known as valemadrismo, slang roughly translated as "to not give a shit." A few beers and a short memory can drive away the day's problems, so the thinking goes.

Unlike other World Cup contenders, such as the Irish, who wept openly after their hard-fought loss to Spain, most of the Mexican team took their loss quite well, according to Proceso, one of Mexico's most prestigious newsmagazines. On the day following the game, midfielder Jesus Arellano, along with other players, was seen nonchalantly shopping in Korea, camcorder in hand.

Armando Moreno, a former soccer promoter in Mexico who now lives in South Gate, says he expected "El Tri," as the team is known, to blow it. "El Tri is a reflection of Mexico. Mexicans often have a hard time believing they can win in other aspects of life as well as in sports. They have the talent, but lack the discipline to make things happen."

Watching the team lose to its shadow-casting neighbor to the north raises special -- and often painful -- issues for the Mexican-immigrant community. My wife, a native of Mexico who is now a U.S. citizen, remained disgusted for days. Once a proud military wife while I was a soldier in the 10th Mountain Division -- perhaps the U.S.'s most gung-ho outfit -- she has proved her love for her adopted country, but national roots run deep, particularly when the source is a cash-strapped country in need of a morale boost. That, of course, leads to something more than mere disappointment: resentment. "[El Tri] made people believe that they are going to give it their all," she says. "But they let us down."

More than a year ago, La Opinión ran a series of articles detailing how El Tri's players partied into the late hours of the night before important matches held in Los Angeles. In one instance, several players were seen returning to their hotel drunk before a friendly match with a young Argentine team. The Mexican veterans were trounced 2-0 the next day.

Former La Opinión reporter Nora Estrada recalls a press conference before a Mexico-Colombia match. While the young Colombian players seemed invigorated and rested, Mexico's star veterans looked simply tired. "I said to myself, 'Mexico is no match for Colombia,'" says Estrada. "The next day, the Colombians dragged Mexico all over the field."

Few gave El Tri much of a chance in the World Cup as it struggled to qualify, but once there, they advanced first in their group, beating talented Ecuador and Croatia and nearly besting a brilliant Italian team. Then came the U.S., which needed a South Korean win over Portugal to get through to the second round. Individually less talented than their Mexican counterparts, the Americans came in with a good game plan, and were disciplined -- and determined.

Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Mexico's brilliant forward, was stifled. Arellano, who was to be the team's secret weapon, was a dud. Former Galaxy forward Luis Hernández, better known in his L.A. days for his off-the-field romps than goals, did little more than make some pretty (and pretty obvious) dives. And Mexico's Javier "El Vasco" Aguirre was clearly out-coached by Bruce Arena. When the final whistle blew, and the U.S. had won 2-0, El Tri left the field without shaking hands with their American rivals, let alone exchanging shirts.

Despite the bad finish -- and the bad feelings -- fans of El Tri do have some hope for the future. Defender Rafa Márquez, the brilliant 23-year-old who plays for France's Monaco, looks likely to be hired by a top Italian club, according to Rigoberto Cervantez, a former soccer writer who now works as a publicist for the Galaxy. Then again, says Cervantez, talent will only get Mexico so far. Discipline and planning are the key -- just look at the U.S. and the lionhearted South Koreans.

"The U.S. has a plan to be world champions by the year 2010. South Korea is sending their 12-year-olds to train in Brazil. But ask me if Mexico has a similar plan? They don't," sighs Cervantez. "May God help them -- and the Virgin Mary."


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