MEXICO CITY -- Barely a year ago, the national soccer team showered Mexico in glory by bringing home a gold medal from the Summer Olympics, arguably the most important sports honor the nation has ever won.
The pendulum has swung hard since.
Mexico’s team is on the cusp of failing to qualify for the 2014 World Cup – the biggest and most important sports event on the planet – and it is feeding into a sullen and peevish national mood that extends beyond sports.
“The belief that Mexico won’t make it to the World Cup is seen as very bad news by all Mexicans,” said Marcelo Ortega, a partner in the public opinion survey firm Consulta Mitofsky.
With two losses in the past week, the team known as El Tri because of the tricolor national flag, fell to fifth place among the six nations in the North and Central America and Caribbean division, all but ruining its chances to qualify for the Cup, which will be played in Brazil.
After the U.S. squad beat El Tri 2-0 Tuesday night in Columbus, Ohio, the Excelsior newspaper captured the mood with the headline: “Tritanic.”
Mexico’s team has qualified for every World Cup since 1990, and seven of its 23-member team play in competitive leagues in Europe.
To the incredulity of fans, though, the team’s fortunes have plummeted. Hours after a loss to Honduras Friday before nearly 100,000 fans at Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium, the Mexican Soccer Federation sacked head coach Jose Manuel “El Chepo” de la Torre. A new coach, Victor Manuel Vucetich, was named Thursday.
“Mexico shouldn’t have any problem qualifying for the World Cup. It’s ridiculous that Mexico runs the risk of being left out,” said Marcelino Perello, a columnist for Excelsior.
More than national pride is at stake. There’s also money. The ESPN sports network calculated that Mexican businesses would lose $600 million if the team didn’t play in the World Cup. The losses include those for the two major television networks, Televisa and TV Azteca, as well as sponsors who already have contracted to buy advertising.
The losses trickle down to bars and other establishments that would do a whopping business on game days.
“It affects the entire restaurant business. It’s like a gold mine for them every four years,” said Ivan Perez Montiel, a sports columnist for El Economista newspaper.
When El Tri won Olympic gold last year, elated Mexicans sent caravans of honking vehicles into the streets. The soaring mood coincided with election of a new president amid pledges to reform an ossified political system.
But that Mexican moment has turned into national torment.
For the past three weeks, striking teachers have blocked major roads in the capital, twice shutting off most access to the international airport and disrupting life. Economic growth has slowed to a crawl. And new taxes may soon squeeze the middle class.
“People are in a bad mood,” Perello said, “and this contributes . . . to public ire, and it is impossible to know how it will play out.”
Mexico’s team still has a statistical chance to earn a World Cup spot, but it must beat Panama Oct. 11 and Costa Rica Oct. 15, while rival Honduras must draw or lose its matches. Even then, Mexico would win a spot as a wild card only when it plays New Zealand twice in November.
If its ouster from the tournament is confirmed, Ortega said, “it will have a general effect in politics, in the economy, et cetera, because the mood of the populace will be bad.”
“It’s cumulative,” he added. “Many factors come into play. If you add that Mexico isn’t going to the World Cup and it generates pessimism among Mexicans, and also we see little economic improvement, all this leads people to be angry.”
Perez, the columnist, said the failure of the team to qualify for the cup will make the job of President Enrique Pena Nieto harder.
“History shows that soccer – not only in Mexico – serves as a distraction,” Perez said. “The World Cup focuses the attention of the whole country.”
Without that distraction, he said, people may put more attention on grievances and other matters.