Gracias USA? Why some Mexican soccer fans are thanking their northern neighbor (+video)

Mexico is still in the running to qualify for the World Cup thanks to a last-minute goal made by the US against Panama. But did Mexico want US ‘saving?’

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    Mexican newspaper front pages carry messages of thanks to the US in Mexico City, Oct. 16. Thanks to the last minute victory of the US team over Panama, Mexico has advanced to the intercontinental playoff series against New Zealand for a spot in next year's World Cup.
    Dario Lopez-Mills/AP
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Chants of “USA! USA!” were heard in the most unlikely of places last night: Mexico City.

The cheers erupted in restaurants and bars across the city after the US soccer team scored in extra time – eliminating Panama and saving Mexico’s hopes of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

The irony of Uncle Sam’s squad saving Mexico from missing the World Cup wasn’t lost on many Mexicans, some of who said their team didn’t even deserve to advance and had hoped staying on the sidelines next year would bring about changes in the sport and its national governing body. A deep distrust of the United States – dating back to the Mexican-American War, when Mexico lost half its territory – could previously rally the country in ways only matched by perhaps the soccer squad and the national patroness, Our Lady of Guadalupe.

“It doesn’t speak well of Mexico that it needed help from the United States,” says Alejandra Apreza, a young deli employee in a neighborhood near the president’s residence, Los Pinos. She says the performance reinforced the old stereotype that “Mexicans don’t work well in teams.”

But a potential sign of a changing Mexican attitude toward its big, bad northern neighbor, many today prefer to look at the problems at home instead of scapegoating the United States, which has long been a popular pastime in political, cultural, and academic circles here.

The national soccer side used to be a unifying force – beverage commercials even employed the slogan "Soccer unites us" – but has since become a source of contention, Ms. Apreza says.

With Mexico now suffering through an economic slowdown, continuing organized crime and violence, and facing difficulties in its attempts to achieve approval of structural reforms in areas such as energy and taxation, the national team, known as El Tri, is seen as another symptom of Mexico's challenges – given unhappiness with its overseer, the Mexican Football Federation – instead of some sort of escape.

“Soccer is a reflection of the overall situation of the country,” says Dr. Alejandro Herrera, a cardiologist. “It’s a reflection of the crisis that we’re in.”

‘De panzazo’ (scraping by)

Mexico lost 2-1 to Costa Rica on Tuesday night in a sloppy match it needed to win in order to control its World Cup fate. But with Panama losing, Mexico will now play New Zealand next month in a last chance, two-game qualifying series. The prospect failed to enthuse some fans.

“It’s like getting a D-minus in school,” says coffee shop employee and student Marco Antonio Rodríguez. “It’s barely scraping by,” he says, using the Mexican slang, "De Panzazo."

Social media lit up during the game, with acerbic tweets calling for celebrations at the US Embassy in Mexico City, instead of the usual Ángel de la Independencia monument. Many said, “Thanks,” in English, while US Soccer tweeted: “#Yourewelcomemexico.”

El Deforma, Meixco's version of the satirical news site The Onion, quipped in a headline: "[President Enrique] Peña Nieto to give all of Baja California to the USA," in exchange for goals against Panama.

Ex-President Felipe Calderón even weighed in, recalling that during his presidency he welcomed to the presidential residence of Los Pinos teams that won the U-17 World Cup and Pan American Games in 2011, and the 2012 Olympics. “What happened?” Mr. Calderón asked on Twitter.

Political historian Ilán Semo of the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City says one thing that’s happened has been a softening of anti-American attitudes in the population, even if it persists with some politicians.

“There’s a relationship of attraction and rejection” toward the United States, Mr. Semo says.

“[But] the old anti-Americanism of the 1970s and ‘80s has been modified.”

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