MEXICO CITY (June 11th) -- The Caliente Sports Book down the street is buzzing with betters studying dog and horse races, Major League Baseball, even golf, on the multiple screens. Of particular interest are those channels running wrap-ups of the afternoon match between Mexico and 2006 World Cup champion Italy, from which the national team emerged victorious in a final prelim before this year's edition of the Copa del Mundo gets underway later this week.
Italy, it may be remembered, won the much-coveted cup four years ago on penalty kicks after France was reduced to playing with ten men on the field when super-star Zenedine Zidane was disqualified for ferociously head-butting a rival who purportedly called his mother and sister "whores." Beating Italy was a decided plus for Mexico's downtrodden spirits as the Mundiales approach.
One group of aficionados was not much interested in Mexico's fortunes in the upcoming fandango in South Africa. Instead, they gathered around a big screen in one corner of the betting parlor cheering on the Los Angeles Lakers in a National Basketball Association Finals match-up with the Boston Celtics. "Forget about football," sneered "El Guerro" Gonzalez, a regular, "this is where the real money gets made." Because pro basketball games routinely rack up hundred-point scores, betters have multiple opportunities to wager on winners and losers, over and under point spreads, total points in a quarter, and whether Kobe Bryant will hit the next three-pointer.
But the basketball euphoria will dissipate post haste as the World Cup takes center stage. Although the NBA's despotic commissioner David Stern promotes his product as the world game, basketball hardly holds a candle to what the U.S. provincially terms "soccer" and the rest of the Planet Earth calls football.
Indeed, the "Copa del Mundo" ("Cup of the World") will soon sweep every other sporting event from the screens -- let alone political scandal, of which there is plenty in this distant neighbor nation, including the upcoming Super Sunday gubernatorial elections July 4th, and even droughts, floods, and other natural disasters. The interminable drug war that has taken 23,000 lives in the past three years will move to the backburner. Ditto an economy that is tailspinning out of control -- a million workers lost their jobs in the first three months of this year alone despite President Felipe Calderon's rosy claims of "recovery."
Speculation about the disappearance of one of the nation's most powerful politicians will fade from the primetime news, and the first year anniversary of the incineration of 49 babies in a government-run day care center owned in part by the first lady's cousin will not even be noticed. The military takeover of the great Cananea copper mine and the dissolution of the miners union, is not news. New revolutions -- this is, after all, the hundredth year anniversary of our landmark revolution -- could rock the land, but for the next month, Mexico will live and die on what happens to the national team in South Africa.
"In football, we find our revenge against the adversaries of our lives," philosophizes sociologist Jose Maria Candia in a recent Contralinea magazine interview, "if it goes badly at work, in the economy, politics, the project of the nation, when 11 boys put on the green jersey and do well in an international tournament, we feel vindicated by life."
With 32 national teams from all five continents in the competition for the World Cup, the fate of the "seleccion" will have palpable impact on domestic tranquility. The political outfall of the Mundiales is unpredictable. Pumped up on toxic nationalism and xenophobia, football is a blood sport in southern climes. Honduras and El Salvador once fought a full-fledged war over soccer.
If the national team wins or acquits itself well, success will strengthen the government in charge no matter how poorly it has served the country. Likewise, a shoddy performance can topple rulers. In Mexico, increasingly unpopular president Felipe Calderon, who won high office in fraud-marred elections three years ago, is banking on the national selection's triumphs in the opening round to invigorate his deteriorating image. Calderon's bet is hardly a sure thing.
Mexico, Number 17 on the Federation of World Football Federation's rankings (now the Coca Cola FIFA rankings), plays host South Africa in the inaugural match of the tournament, and "His Excellency" Felipe Calderon (dixit South African president Jacob Zuma) will be a guest of honor. The "Bafana Bafana" ("Boys Boys") as the locals are worshipped, have won their last four prelim matches and in the 2009 Confederation Cup took Spain, which some football gurus fix as the best team in the world, into overtime. Their fanatics' incessantly droning "vuvazelas" or plastic trumpets are said to drive opponents mad.
On the other hand, should Mexico beat sentimental favorite South Africa, it will make Calderon few friends on the African continent -- five other African teams are in the draw, with war-torn Cote d'Ivoire the cream of the crop.
Aside from the Bafana Bafana, France and Uruguay are the real class of Mexico's four-team group -- while the French have appeared lackadaisical of late, whipping the South Americans is improbable. Anything less than reaching the quarterfinals will not rehabilitate Calderon's popularity.
Mexico has a young team that fluctuates between indifference and playing out of control. It is anchored by seven Mexican players from the European and Turkish leagues, and the wily but slow-footed veteran Cuauhtemoc Blanco. Burned repeatedly by the national team's poor performances in the Mundiales, many fans such as Manuel Garcia, a waiter at the old quarter Mexico City eatery Café La Blanca, consider that only divine intervention can save Mexico -- and Calderon -- from ignominious elimination.
When and if Mexico wins its matches though, wild celebrations are guaranteed to erupt around the gilded Angel of Independence on the bustling Paseo de Reforma -- drunkenness, fisticuffs, and hooliganism are de rigor. Flag-draped caravans of honking cars will jam the boulevards of this conflictive megalopolis. On game days, half the population of Mexico, led by its president, will don green jerseys and play hooky from work and school. Saloons will fill to the brim with fans spilling out into the streets, jostling for a peek at the plasma screens. Masses to insure that God is on Mexico's side will be pronounced from the altars and saints dressed up in the national colors.
Although football is tantamount to religion in this country where 70% of the population lives in and around the poverty line, only the super rich will have the wherewithal to jet off to Africa. Instead, the underclass will monitor the Mundiales at the "FIFA Fan Fest" on giant screens erected in the great Zocalo plaza from which nearly a hundred hunger-striking members of the Mexican Electricity Workers Union (SME), near death after a month of voluntary starvation, will no doubt be evicted so as not to dampen the fiesta.
Televisa and TV Azteca, Mexico's two-headed television monopoly, which will transmit the games (the premium package includes 3-D) will have the nation eating out of its hands (and guzzling Corona beer.) The TV monoliths have leased rights to broadcast the Mundiales from the Swiss-based FIFA, the absolute dictator of the sport for the past 106 years that counts 204 out of 208 football federations worldwide on its roster. FIFA TV revenues are expected to top $167,000,000 for the 2010 World Cup.
This year's Copa del Mundo is awash with drama. Will the Argentine selection, a perennial favorite, graced by the world's best player, Leonel "the Flea" Messi, blow up under their sometimes psychotic coach Diego Maradona, himself a Mundiales' immortal? Will the first round match between England and the U.S. (14th on the FIFA listings with a world-class star, Landon Donovan, to prove it) invoke the star-crossed Yanqui upset of the Brits 60 years ago in 1950 in Brazil, the only time these two teams have ever met in the World Cup?
If the U.S. gets by England, a match between Mexico and its hated gringo rival would up the drama quotient here considerably. A face-off between South Korea and North Korea, both of which are in the draw albeit in separate groups, could lead to nuclear confrontation.
How will tiny, bruised Honduras, which played through a coup d'etat to qualify, fare against the big guns? What kind of karmic reward is in store for France, which slimed its way into the World Cup with mega-star Thierry Henry's illegal hand-slap goal against the Irish? Will Germany be dispirited by the suicide of its troubled veteran goalie (is this a Wim Wenders' film)? Will five-time champ Brazil, which is hosting both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, be so overloaded with hubris that the selection will forget to play football?
But unquestionably the drama of dramas is focused on host South Africa, the land of blood and gold, Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Joe Slovo, and the last great struggle for liberation from colonialism.
South Africa, an unlikely site for the World Cup, was promised the games by Swiss football impresario Joseph Batter during his 1998 campaign to become the czar of the FIFA. Blatter, who was said to have been backed by Middle East oil money, needed African votes to put him over the top. Although Nigeria and Morocco were also proposed to host the 2010 Cup, South Africa, the continent's fastest-growing economy, was chosen both as a tribute to African football and to Nelson Mandela. Blatter even flew the frail, aging apostle of African liberation, to London to ballyhoo the designation.
Whether the beloved Mandiba will be well enough to attend the inauguration is the drama within the drama.
In his youth, Nelson Mandela was a keen amateur boxer and enthusiasm for sports has colored his life. Football is indeed the national sport of black South Africans, 75% of the population. During Mandela's 28 years of imprisonment on Robbin Island for the crime of defying apartheid, his fellow prisoners and comrades in the African National Congress (ANC), played football incessantly, taping up rags into balls, and booting them up and down the narrow prison corridors. But Madiba was held in isolation and could never participate.
Nelson Mandela's vision for the new South Africa encompassed sports as a path to racial reconciliation. If football was a black sport in South Africa, rugby is an Afrikaner obsession -- the Springboks were the maximum icon of the apartheid regime. As president, Mandela brought the 1995 World Rugby Cup to Johannesburg, a story fictionalized in the film "Invictus," and won the hearts and minds of his former persecutors. Now the World Cup 2010 is slated to project South Africa before the world as a dynamic, multi-racial powerhouse.
The truth is always more diffuse. Jacob Zuma, the country's very corruptible third president, and his predecessors have sunk between $3.7 and $6 billion USD in infrastructure to burnish their images in a nation where 43% of South Africa's 45.000.000 peoples live on $2 or less a day. The gleaming $300,000,000 Soccer City Stadium where the July 11th finals will be staged, abuts Soweto, the festering high-crime enclave of 3,000,000 mostly threadbare citizens, 30% of whom suffer from AIDS, according to the World Health Organization. Gangs of orphaned children rule the street.
Similarly, the stadium at Port Elizabeth on Nelson Mandela Bay, which came in at $287,000,000, was built over a slum from which hundreds were evicted. A school complex was demolished to make way for the Neusprot venue (only $140,000,000) -- 13 such stadiums have risen from the dust amidst a storm of charges of kickbacks, bribery, and favoritism.
If recent history is any hint, the new stadiums will quickly become certifiable white elephants. Even Beijing's much-praised "Birds' Nest" coliseum designed for the 2008 Olympics is reportedly tenantless, and the Greek economy just collapsed in part thanks to the burden of debt incurred for infrastructure for its Olympic Games.
With a population scuffling just to feed itself, filling all this dazzling stadia with paying customers is problematic. Even the $18 cheap seats -- a week's wages in the cities and a month's income in some rural areas -- are mostly out of reach in a country where 50% of the work force is out of work. To deflect a grave social crisis in the making, the FIFA is offering 120,000 free admissions, about 2,200 seats for each of the World Cup's 62 contests. Riots have already occurred at "friendly" preliminary games.
Ever since the bad old days of ancient Rome, bread and circuses have been a powerful formula for social control. In South Africa, as in Mexico, the World Cup is designed to make the discontented forget their discontent. For the next month, the violence, corruption, and class and race hatreds that dominate daily life in Mexico, South Africa, and the rest of what used to be called the third world will disappear beneath the social surface.
Although conflict is my bread and butter, I'm not going to miss the 2010 Mundiales for the world.
John Ross is at home in the maw of the Monstruo watching the World Cup. You can complain to him at email@example.com