MEXICO CITY — MEXICO is in the grip of World Cup fever.
Every Sunday for the last month, the nation has come to a halt for two hours. Shops are shuttered. The empty streets echo with the sound of play-by-play announcers on radio and televsion. And most of the 85 million people here hold their collective breath, breaking the tension only to scream "Gol!" or curse the opposition.
For the first time in 15 years, the Mexican soccer team is on the verge of qualifying for the 1994 World Cup finals to be held in the United States next summer.
This Sunday, North American free trade niceties will be put aside as Mexico squares off against Canada. The regional victor will advance to the finals. The loser must go on to beat the winner of the Oceania region (either Australia or New Zealand) and a South American team to gain a berth. But Mexico - because it defeated Canada once already - would need only a tie to advance.
"This is the best Mexican team I've ever seen, and I've been following the sport since 1960," says Ricardo Castillo, a Mexican sports columnist. In his thoroughly unbiased opinion, Mexico will win. "Canada's not good enough."
Mexico participated in the 1986 World Cup as the host. But 1978 was the last time it earned a berth in the finals. It was suspended from the 1990 World Cup because it was caught in 1988 using over-age players in the Central American Youth Soccer Championships.
Obviously outright cheating isn't sanctioned. But almost everything else is fair in love and soccer. Last Sunday, Honduran fans treated the visiting Mexican team to the traditional pre-game "serenade." They camped outside the hotel where the Mexicans were staying in Tegucigalpa, honking their horns, playing music, and bathing the hotel in bright lights all night.
When the Mexican team showed up on the practice field behind schedule, (the Honduran team's practice ran late), the stadium ground crew told them their time was up. It was reported that when the team refused to leave, the sprinkler system was turned on.
A few weeks before, El Salvador caused a minor diplomatic tiff when it "forgot" to play the Mexican national anthem before the start of the game. Of course, Mexico isn't a novice when it comes to seeking tactical advantages. In the past, it has sited games in nearby Toluca, which is even higher than Mexico City (7,250 feet above sea level), to test the stamina of visiting teams in the thinner air.
And losses are taken hard. Honduras and El Salvador went to "war" over a soccer match in 1969, disputing which team would represent the region in world soccer championship competition. Last Sunday, when Honduras was eliminated from the Cup playoffs, a riot broke out and some 57 people were injured.
Few expect the Canada-Mexico contest to be seasoned by questionable pre- or post-game behavior. But on Sunday, emotions will be running high south of the Rio Bravo.