Mexico vs. South Africa: Mexicans realistic about World Cup prospects

In the opening World Cup match Friday morning, Mexico will come to a standstill to watch Mexico vs. South Africa. But only 20 percent of Mexicans think their team will advance to the semi-finals.

Martin Meissner/AP
South African fans and supporters from Mexico celebrate at Nelson Mandela Square in Johannesburg, South Africa prior the World Cup kickoff, Thursday.

Around the world, work, play, and school will grind to a halt during World Cup matches.

Mexico is no different. Government officials here are admonishing employees that absences during the World Cup will not be tolerated. But expect TVs to sprout in many office cubicles.

And while Mexican education authorities say school won't be canceled, the inaugural game Friday morning, featuring Mexico vs. South-Africa, can be watched on TV in class.

Polls show 90 percent of Mexicans are interested in the month-long global soccer tournament – including their president, Felipe Calderon, who is expected to attend the opening game in South Africa Friday.

IN PICTURES: Top Ten Players to Watch

Mexico has never made it past the quarter finals, and less than 20 percent say in a new poll that they believe Mexico will make it beyond there this year either.

Still, as its team, “El Tri,” opens the 2010 World Cup in the debut game against hosts South Africa, passions are high – even if expectations are more muted.

“Mexicans love soccer and love the Virgin of Guadalupe,” says Enrique Muñoz, a university student, just as a young woman approaches passing out fliers from a coffee shop advertising World Cup breakfast specials for the inaugural game. “Even those who do not love soccer still love watching the World Cup.”

According to a BVA-WIN poll published in the French publication Le Parisien/Aujourd'hui Monday, 90 percent of Mexicans say they are interested in the World Cup – one of the most enthusiastic nations of those polled – compared to just 56 percent of the French who care enough to turn on their television sets.

Why Mexico has high hopes

Mexico heads into the games particularly buoyed this year, after beating Italy, former World Cup champions, 2-1 in an exhibition game. That made it Mexico´s eighth win in 12 exhibition games. They lost two of the 12: against England and the Netherlands, and played draws with Ecuador and Iceland.

“We're going to the World Cup without fear of success," Tri coach Javier Aguirre was quoted as saying in the Associated Press. "We've played Italy, England and the Netherlands ... and we are here."

Ahead of Friday´s match, Mexican striker Guillermo Franco seemed to acknowledge how many people – in Mexico and beyond – will have their eyes on the team. "It's a blessing from God, not everyone has the opportunity to kick off the World Cup, and we're aware that millions of people will be watching," he told reporters on Wednesday.

Playing the debut game has fans nerves frayed. Cristian Zaldivar, who sells heaping cups of cantaloupe, watermelon, and mango from a street stall in Mexico City, says he believes Mexico is a better team than its first rival, South Africa, but that team has the clear home advantage. “It is at their home, in front of their own people,” he says. “I have to say I am nervous.”

In a poll by the daily El Universal, 66 percent think Mexico will win the first game. But in the next rounds, Mexico plays France and then Uruguay. Only about 50 percent believe Mexico will garner a full-out victory against those teams. Forty-eight percent say Mexico will advance to the quarterfinals.

World’s biggest loser?

And according to a World Cup facts list put together by “Mexico is the biggest loser at the tournament, having had 22 losses. They also have the worst goal differential, allowing 36 more than they have scored overall.”

That seems to do little to dampen the enthusiasm here in Mexico. Newspapers are publishing articles for companies on how to keep productivity up, with El Universal dedicating over 1,300 words to the subject in one article this week. The bottom line: let employees watch the games in the office; productivity might go down but not as much as if they feign sick.

Two pharmacists, who for obvious reasons wished not to share their names, were still undecided about whether they would be at work on time Friday morning (the game starts at 9 a.m. local time), since their boss barred the television from their store.

Mr. Zalvidar says he considers himself fortunate: he is moving his stand from its regular street corner to a local park, where TV screens are to be set up. “I am lucky,” he says. “I can kill two birds with one stone.”

IN PICTURES: Top Ten Players to Watch


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