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The World Cup Meets Mexico’s Presidenciales

On the heels of the Great June 6th non-debate between Mexico’s three leading presidential candidates, a U.S, reporter stopped in at his favorite café in the old quarter of this sprawling megalopolis for an evening café con leche. The patrons of La Blanca were intensely focused on a gaggle of talking heads up on the TV screen. Hearing the word “partido”, Spanish for “political party”, mentioned repeatedly, the reporter beamed in thinking the program was a round-table rehashing of the just-concluded debate.

But in Spanish, “partido” also refers to a futbol match and, in fact, the denizens of the Café La Blanca were fixated on the impending “Mundiales” or World Cup, soccer-football’s every-four-year crowning spectacle that kicked off June 9th in Germany.

For the next month, World Cup competition will mesmerize millions of citizens of the Planet Earth. Football fananticos will think of little else. Work schedules will be severely altered, fields will lay fallow, and families forgotten. Mexico will be no exception. But in Mexico, the World Cup will coincide exactly with the culmination of the presidential elections and the impact of these colliding passions will, as always, be profound.

Every 12 years, the “presidenciales” here are challenged by the “mundiales”, forcing candidates to halt their campaigns in mid-tirade because no one is listening, reschedule rally’s and TV spots, don football gear and play “cascarita” (kicking the soccer ball around) for the cameras, feign interest in what is often a deadly dull “partido”, and erupt in strident bursts of patriotism whenever the national selection takes the field to the foot-stomping chant of “Max-I-Co! Mex-I -Co!”

Mexico is rated fourth by the FIFA (International Federation of Football Associations) , a wildly generous ranking according to some aficionados–the hated U.S., which knocked Mexico out of the World Cup four years ago in Korea, is rated fifth but the two rivals are in distant groups and it will be a while–if ever–before they face off. Mexico’s first match-up was with Iran which succumbed handily (the Iranian selection forgot to bring its enriched uranium), to be followed by Angola and Portugal (the only other potential powerhouse in the group) and Team Mexico, which features a couple of top-line European pros, should survive into the second round.

Meanwhile, saints are being dressed up in Mexico’s team jerseys and the Princes of the Church have extended their benedictions. Hooligans will gather lose or win around the Angel of Independence on elegant Paseo de Reforma to mindlessly mouth the name of the nation, ad nauseum. Make-Sicko! Make-Sicko! This year, however, the spiring monument with the gilded angel atop is draped in heavy construction cloth and is under renovation and the obstruction should make for some exciting rioting.

The fortunes of the selection are intimately linked to those of the presidential aspirants. If Mexico exits early, say upset in the first round by Angola and Portugal, the opposition will gain an advantage over President Vicente Fox’s party, the right-wing National Action or PAN. Both Roberto Madrazo, standard-bearer for the once-ruling PRI who often campaigns in a soccer jersey, and the leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (his sport is beisbol) will blame Fox for running a losing sports development program and for his failure to motivate the selection. But if Mexico makes it to the final eight, a set of matches in and around election day, Fox and his dauphin Felipe Calderon (he plays cascarita in TV spots) will point with pride to the accomplishments of the right-wing regime and Felipe could ride that pride to victory June 2nd.

Moreover, if Mexico reaches the semifinals and is scheduled to play on Election Day, absenteeism will soar–Lopez Obrador needs a big turnout (15 million out of a probable 42 million) to win the presidency.

But the big winner, of course, will be Mexico’s two-headed television monopoly, Televisa and TV Azteca. Just as on the political field, where the two networks will rake in 13 billion pesos ($1.3 billion USD) for TV spots before its all done, the TV titans will clean up on the Mundiales.

The “coyuntura” or coming together of the presidential elections and the World Cup worries former diplomat Leonardo French. In a letter to the left daily La Jornada, he wondered whether “the television networks that own the World Cup” had considered what their shameless pumping up of Mexico’s selection will mean if the team does not do well. “There will be tremendous frustration that could lead to violent acts and at the very least, everyone will go into a depression. No one will vote and absenteeism will be the big winner” on July 2nd.

JOHN ROSS is in Mexico City waiting to see How It All Turns Out so that he can write the epilogue to his latest opus “Making Another World Possible–Zapatista Chronicles 2000-2006” to be published in October by Nation Books.