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Tex Maule
June 22, 1970
Always a sport that incites extravagant response, it provoked an entire nation to a vast emotional spree at the World Cup competition in Mexico as the home team enjoyed some early successes
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June 22, 1970

Soccer Is A Frenzy

Always a sport that incites extravagant response, it provoked an entire nation to a vast emotional spree at the World Cup competition in Mexico as the home team enjoyed some early successes

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The Mexicans have a word for it—la locura. La locura means a mixture of madness and folly. Add to that marimba music, murder, serenades and suicide and you have a rather feeble description of the psychedelic atmosphere of the competition for the world soccer championship in Mexico.

Under the best of conditions, soccer seems to breed far more emotion than any other team sport. At all four locations where World Cup games were played in Mexico—Guadalajara, León, Mexico City and Toluca-Puebla—the players and officials were protected from the crowds by barbed wire and a moat, a not unreasonable precaution, because in far less important matches officials and players have been stomped to death by frustrated fans. None of the players on the 16 national teams competing in the quadrennial tournament for the Jules Rimet Cup have suffered any direct physical damage from the fans. That is probably the result, in good measure, of the very efficient organization of the games by the Mexicans, and traffic and crowd control at most of the sites has been exemplary. Only in the opening game at Mexico City's Aztec Stadium, a massive, handsome structure built for the World Cup, did the organization break down. Besieged by a happy, howling mob of 112,504 flag-waving fans who had come in a fantastic variety of cars, buses and trucks and on bicycles, burros and huaraches, the Mexican police gave up the battle. They stood about in small, philosophical groups discussing the weather, the odds on a Mexican victory over Russia and the vicissitudes of life for a traffic cop surrounded by idiots.

The result was chaos. The stadium opened at 8:30 a.m. but the people bearing banners, bocadillos (Mexican sandwiches) and picnic blankets began arriving at 7. By 10, still two hours before game time, the environs of the stadium had been choked in a stupendous traffic jam. Cars were parked in the middle of an expressway, on the shoulders of the access roads, in no-parking zones and on sidewalks. The unfortunate drivers who could not find illegal parking places honked "Meh-he-co, Meh-he-co, Meh-he-co" in ear-splitting cadence or deserted their cars to buy Mexican flags from the ubiquitous roadside stands.

The game itself hardly justified all the excitement. The Russians, playing with the patterned discipline of the European style of soccer, seemed content to settle for a tie and, surprisingly, so did the Mexicans. The result was a cautious 0-0 draw, reminiscent of the opening of the World Cup competition in England in 1966 when England and Uruguay produced the same result in the same kind of game. The fans whistled at the Russians for what they considered rough play and whistled at the officials for not being more strict, but they were really rather good-humored about the whole thing.

For the first two weeks, play was divided into four-team divisions, the strongest of which was the one in Guadalajara, comprised of England, the defending world champion, Brazil, twice holder of the championship, and Rumania and Czechoslovakia, two very strong European sides. The first two teams in each division qualified for the quarterfinal knockout competition.

The key game in the first week was between England and Brazil. Brazil was generally conceded to be the best of the Latin American teams, and England, on the basis of its 1966 championship and continuing success since then, was considered the most formidable European side. The English team is coached by Sir Alf Ramsey, a phlegmatic, balding man who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1966 after taking England to the title. Sir Alf is a notably silent knight, who speaks sparingly to English journalists and almost not at all to others. He made his position bluntly clear when he arrived in Mexico. "We have not come here to win a tournament of courtesies," said he. "We have come to play soccer."

The English irritated their Mexican hosts in a number of other ways. They brought their own bottled water, their own bacon and sausage and even their own bus, equipped with high-back seats and card tables. Since there is a Mexican law banning the import of any food that might transmit hoof and mouth disease, the English supplies were destroyed on arrival and the team had to subsist on Mexican salchichas, sausages considerably hotter than their British equivalent. A leather merchant in Mexico City expressed the feeling of his countrymen. "We consider them our huéspedes," he said. "You know, when you have guest in your house, is for him everything of the best. The best to eat, the best to drink, the best of your courtesy. And our sausages—I have not eaten of the sausages of England, but I can tell you Mexican sausage...." he kissed his fingers and rolled his eyes. "But when you do all this for your guest and he turns away"—he turned away and looked very much like a man who has stepped in something unpleasant—"then you no longer have a feeling of pleasure with your guest."

The feeling of pleasure did not last long in Guadalajara, and the Mexicans, with the assistance of the 2,000 Brazilians on hand to support their team, employed a peculiarly Latin method of expressing their displeasure. They serenaded the British team en masse. A serenade, Mexican or Brazilian style, is a pleasant thing, but not when it is rendered at 3 in the morning by some 200 people, most of them equipped with drums, frying pans, horns, scratchers and various other noisemaking devices. The first night the serenaders entertained the British delegation they were finally driven off by armed guards who fired a volley into the air to make their point. The volley served the double purpose of convincing the serenaders that they should leave and awakening the few English players who had slept through the music.

By the time more than 70,000 fans had gathered in Guadalajara's modern, bowl-shaped stadium for the match between England and Brazil, sentiment had been totally polarized. Five thousand-odd Englishmen cheered for the British, and everyone else backed Brazil.

The game itself was a good one, and the odds are that it was watched on television by the biggest audience in history. In England 29 million saw it, making the British viewing strength almost equivalent to the one that watched the first moon landing and the return of the crew of Apollo 13 to earth. (Estimates of the worldwide audience for the matches in Mexico ranged from 700 million to a billion.)

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