Mexico feels bold after Olympic gold


Mexico soccer players in ecstasy with their gold medals after their surprise victory over Brazil at the London Olympic Games on Aug. 11, 2012 at the Wembley stadium in London.


Luis Acosta

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Beer flowed early here in bars and restaurants as fans gathered to watch the London Olympic men's soccer final on Saturday.

Such competitions often left a bitter taste in the mouths of most Mexicans. Their national team had a history of heartbreak in international competitions, exiting the World Cup routinely in the round of 16.

But fans tasted something different in the gold medal match: international soccer success, beating five-time World Cup champion Brazil 2-1 in London and burying decades of “futbol” futility.

The championship came just days before Wednesday night’s (8 p.m. ET) Mexico-US friendly match at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City — a high-altitude monster where Mexico holds an imposing home-field advantage — and at a time when the countries’ soccer rivalry could be tipping in Mexico's favor.

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Mexico has never lost to the United States at the Estadio Azteca. US coach Jurgen Klinsmann expected winning there on Wednesday to be a tough task. "At the moment, Mexico is a step ahead," he told reporters.

Taking gold marked Mexico’s first Olympic soccer victory and first-ever medal in a team sport. It signals a further surge in Mexican soccer — most evident at the junior level, where the country has won a pair of under-17 World Cups since 2005.

It also means another advance in the mindset of young Mexican players who "got used to winning" as juniors, said Tom Marshall, a Guadalajara-based sports reporter. "They're not awed by anything. They certainly weren't awed in the [Olympics] final."

For some observers, though, the London Games victory over Brazil speaks as much about the emerging Mexican economic outlook and changes in society as it does about success at sports.

Comparisons between Mexico and Brazil recently have pointed more positively toward Mexico, whose economy is projected to grow more quickly than the South American powerhouse for the second year in a row.

"Mexico is a serious competitor to Brazil," said Manuel Molano, assistant director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness think tank.

"The moral to this story is that we can do the same as they did and thrive much more."

Surpassing Brazil economically seemed improbable in recent years for Mexico, where envy of the South American country had been rife among some of the elites. First lady Margarita Zavala complained in 2010 that Mexico had a lower homicide rate than Rio de Janeiro, but Brazil’s city gets to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

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Surpassing Brazil on the soccer field seemed improbable, too. Mexico entered the Olympic tournament — which is mostly for participants under age 23, plus three senior players — with a squad of largely domestic-league athletes unknown outside the country. British betting shops ranked Mexico sixth favorite, according to Marshall.

"Even hardcore football fans won't know the names of these Mexican players," said Marshall. "The announcer at Wembley (Stadium), when he was announcing the (Mexican names), he was messing them up because they're just not known.”

Winning Olympic gold was no overnight accomplishment. The Mexican Football Federation has invested heavily in youth development over the past decade.

Mexican professional teams also played their part by having youth squads travel with their senior counterparts and participate in competitive matches. Fabled Guadalajara franchise Chivas put a special emphasis on player development. The club only fields Mexican players, which limits its pool of prospects.

The Chivas system most famously produced striker Javier Hernandez — better known as "Chicharito," meaning little pea, for his light-green eyes — who was sold to Manchester United in 2010 and tore up the English Premier League in his first season.

Stories such as Chicharito's were previously uncommon as Mexicans gained reputations for not traveling well and preferring the relative prosperity of their domestic league to the challenge of competing in Europe.

But Chicharito, who didn't play in the Olympics, but should suit up Wednesday for the friendly with the United States (Mexico’s lineup via ESPN), was a different kind of player. He stood out from the fading faces of Mexican soccer, such as temperamental striker Cuauhtemoc Blanco, who became better known for selfishness and showing up out of shape for World Cup training than for scoring goals.

Chicharito, meanwhile, speaks English, went to university while playing professional and, according to comments by his grandfather to The Sun tabloid, "never drinks even a drop of alcohol."

"If you have to put a face on the new Mexican football, it's something similar to Chicharito," said Guadalajara-based sports marketing expert Hector Lopez Zatarain.

"That's a player who's more disciplined, more educated ... [who] recognizes that he might have a professional career and as a professional you have to take care of yourself."

Lopez also spoke of seeing social changes reflected in Mexico's soccer successes — especially because most of the winning players came of age over the past two decades, as the country became more economically and politically open.

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Others say Mexico is finally victorious in team sports, instead of just solo pursuits like boxing.

"The Mexican victories ... appear to be the beginning of the end of the theory that Mexicans, due to a deeply rooted cultural attachment to family and the individual ... don't know how to work as a team," business journalist Eduardo Garcia wrote in the online publication Sentido Comun after Mexico's U-17 victory in 2011.

Players who have won gold medals spoke of a new boldness emerging, too.

"We have a winning mentality," said defender Diego Reyes. "I'm not scared of any team."

How far that mentality takes Mexico in future tournaments — and in games such as Wednesday night's against their old US rivals — remains to be seen, but hopes are high.

"We're not on the level of Spain or Argentina or Brazil," Lopez said, despite the upset in London. "But we're on the right track."

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