MEXICO CITY — Thousands packed the Plaza de la Republica, many dressed in the green home and off-white away jerseys of El Tri, the Mexican national soccer team’s nickname. The line to get into the registrants-only official watch party of the FIFA World Cup stretched around the periphery of the outdoor space.
On one end of the downtown square, a giant screen showed Mexico’s opening match of the World Cup from Qatar on Tuesday against Poland. At the other end were games, contests, an Adidas pop-up store and the Monumento a la Revolucion, a tiled tower in honor of Mexican Revolution heroes from more than 100 years ago.
The onlookers take their soccer seriously. When the Mexican national anthem was played, most sang along with their countrymen and women inside the stadium in Qatar. And when the match kicked off, all of the socializing came to a quick stop to focus on the action.
The fans cheered good defensive plays, expressed exasperation at missed goal scoring chances, yelled and groaned when video replay was used to award Poland a penalty kick, and some even clapped at the final whistle, satisfied with a 0-0 draw. When goalkeeper Memo Ochoa stopped a penalty kick from Poland star Robert Lewandowski in the second half, objects were thrown in the air and liquids from drinks splashed on elated Mexico supporters.
But that would be the only thing the crowd could truly be excited about, as the two teams played to a scoreless draw in the Group C opener for both.
Next up for Mexico, mighty Argentina on Saturday, topped in a 2-1 upset to Saudi Arabia earlier in the week. The South Americans will be angry and eager to atone for the stunning loss, and Mexico is not in Argentina’s class as far as talent on the roster.
“The Mexican fans are very passionate about soccer and they leave everything they have to do for a national team match, even more so when it’s the World Cup,” said Adrián Basilio Rodriguez, a reporter with Reforma, an independent news organization based in Mexico. City. “There is always the hope that the national team will exceed what it normally does in the World Cup, first because of the belief they have in the team and second due to the false expectations created by TV commentators.”
There was an air of uncertainty and resignation about the team among Mexico City residents in the days leading up to the World Cup. Mexico, often the best team in the CONCACAF world soccer region (North America), typically battles it out with the US team for regional supremacy in World Cup qualifying and major tournaments. But the team lost three of its most recent five matches before facing Poland.
“There had been some doubts about the lineup decisions from (head coach) Gerardo Martino, but (Tuesday) they played well. The perception will change a little going into the game against Argentina,” said TUDN TV reporter Rodrigo Celorio.
For Qatar 2022 regional qualifying, Canada was the top finisher, Mexico second and a young American team third.
“In this World Cup in Qatar, expectations are a little lower because Mexico lost games to the US and other countries and many people did not like the lineups from the head coach,” Rodriguez said. “But with the big save (Tuesday) from goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa against Robert Lewandowski, things changed.”
There’s no ignoring the passion of Mexican soccer fans. It’s there no matter where El Tri plays, from Glendale’s State Farm Stadium almost every year to Qatar, to on a giant screen at the official FIFA Fan Festival, where Mexico City gathered publicly Tuesday and will do so for every World Cup match going forward.
Only a handful of cities around the world are hosting the official FIFA-sanctioned events.
One man sold fake World Cup trophies. Others hawked bootleg jerseys, although seemingly everyone already had one on, or a club jersey for a player on the national team. Fans dressed as an Aztec warrior, cartoon characters and a clown. Some wore sombreros and lucha libre masks.
Everyone was hyped following a pregame show studio rendition of “Mexico Lindo y Querido,” a song of adoration for the country.
“El… Chu-cky … Lo-ZA-no!” they sang in unison, in praise of Mexico forward Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, who played well against Poland.
But many fans apparently ignored the Mexican soccer federation’s crackdown on the use of a homophobic slur when the opposing team’s goalkeeper let a goal kick fly. And the hatred and disrespect remains for the archrival US team, as the American national anthem was muted at the fan festival prior to the US game against Wales on Monday afternoon, only to have the Wales anthem cranked up like that of all of the other teams .
Ochoa was the hero of an otherwise up-and-down morning for Mexican fans who came expecting a win over Poland. And the specter of an Argentina team that somehow lost its first World Cup match loomed.
Argentina, led by six-time FIFA World Player of the Year Lionel Messi, entered the World Cup third in FIFA’s national men’s team rankings. Mexico was No. 13.
“That one is do or die. It’s a bad one. Forget about it. (Argentina) must claim their supremacy back,” said soccer fan Wayne Bombo, a native of the African nation of Gabon who lives in Mexico.
Should Mexico defeat Argentina, the party will move from the Plaza de la Republica to the Ángel de la Independencia statue in the middle of the city’s most recognizable thoroughfare, the Paseo de la Reforma. Traffic will be slowed down in a city with a great deal of it at all times.
“Me, in my 33 years of living, I think this is the first time that there isn’t so much excitement for the national team,” said Mexico City resident Rafael Escandón. “They played well, they attacked and if they can beat Argentina they have a chance to win the group.”