The day before the big game, Sam Lopez squeezed into a van with six friends and headed south from San Francisco. Their destination: Mexico's sold-out soccer showdown with Ecuador at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
By Saturday afternoon, they were among the pumped-up crowd trekking to the stadium, where 90,000 spectators were expected to fill the seats. Lopez and his friends wore bright red and green team jerseys, each shelling out $80 per ticket.
"Va a ganar, va a ganar!" Lopez and his buddy, Jerry Torraba, echoed, predicting a heroic win for the players from his native Mexico, which took an early lead in the game. Both teams competed in the World Cup last summer, but to Lopez and his friends, only one side had the edge on talent.
Many in the throng behind them wore sombreros and ponchos and carried Gatorade and toy horns. Mothers stopped to buy paletas or ice cream from cart vendors, while teenagers stocked up on Subway sandwiches to munch on during intermission. This was the first game the Mexican team was playing in the U.S. this year, and rabid soccer fans began preparing months ago to swarm the Coliseum.
"When you're a fan, you're a fan, no matter what," said Rosalba Mena, who memorized her spot in the stadium: Section 17, row 18, seat 100. Working in concessions at the Hollywood Bowl, she said, she was used to chaos. Her advice? "Just stay together and know that these teams only come once in a while — you gotta take advantage of it."
Delfino Villa, sporting an easy grin and persuasive voice, arrived as early as 1 p.m. — more than five hours before the game was scheduled to start — to hawk the red, white and green Mexican flags and patriotic headbands. "Banderas, cintas," he called out, advertising his wares. "Primo, primo, you get a good deal."
Flags he bought for $2 sold for $10. When a competitor sprang forward, offering even bigger emblems for $10, Villa cut his price in half.
Brian Anderson, Villa's neighbor in Compton whom the vendor is training to be a salesman, said the scene outside the Coliseum on Saturday was "the ultimate. You can make tons of money. The secret is patience — plus you talk to everyone. This is one of the biggest buying crowds there is."
Along Figueroa Street, near a car dealership gleaming with Ferraris, hordes of anxious soccer fans honked their car horns and yelled into traffic, waving mini-flags supporting their teams. "Move it along," one driver shouted. "Nothing comes between me and my boys."
In a sea of Mexico supporters, Vincent Guevara sprinted ahead with his two young boys, eager to cheer for his homeland of Ecuador. His 12-year-old son, Sebastian, is a goalie and his other son, Rafael, 9, is captain for a team near the family's home in Hawthorne. "Of course, I want to learn strategy," Sebastian said. "You start young. It's a sport you stay with your whole life."