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For fans of Mexico's soccer team, World Cup goal is still alive

Some blamed bad coaching. Others complained of too many foreign-born players. And still others said a better goalkeeper was needed.

There were plenty of theories, but the fact remained that Mexico's national soccer team — considered one of the most talented and promising in the world only two years ago — was on the brink of losing control of their World Cup fate.

On Friday night, El Tri (short for El Tri-color, a reference to Mexico's three-colored flag), as its fans affectionately call the team, was in a must-win game against Panama. A defeat would mean Mexico's World Cup qualification would rest on the hope that other teams lost in qualifying matches.

Mexico has not missed the World Cup since 1990. Failing to qualify would be a blow to its national team, and an even more serious blow to its proud and vocal fan base, millions of whom reside in the United States.

On Friday, fans proudly wore their team's colors — green, white and red — to work and to school and shuffled their plans to be free to watch the game that night.

Tomas Mejia, 23, and his friends arrived at MacArthur Park earlier than usual to play a few rounds of pickup soccer. They left by 3 p.m. to be home in time for the game.

Spanish-language broadcasters made sure morning commuters got their fair share of commentary on the game. One broadcaster, Alex "El Genio" Lucas of Jose 97.5, half-joked that it would be a national tragedy if Mexico didn't reach the World Cup.

But even though they recognized the uphill battle, fans would not even consider the possibility of their team's absence from Brazil in 2014.

"It's going to be tough, but we're going to make it," said Mario Alberto Calvo, sitting in El Rinconcito del Mar restaurant in East Los Angeles, where he watched the game with his family. "Where there's a will, there's a way."

During the game, Calvo yelled at the TV screen, cheering the team one second when it made a good play and then jeering when it lost possession.

He was the loudest in the room when Oribe Peralta scored to give Mexico a lead late in the first half, and was also the first to criticize Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez when he missed a strike directly in front of the goal.

"Te digo!" (I'm telling you!) he said in a disappointed tone.

The team's fans have a love-hate relationship with El Tri. When the team wins, fans kiss the logo of the Mexican Soccer Federation on the left side of the team's jersey and sing "Cielito Lindo," the team's victory song. When the team loses, its fans are quick to say they knew it would happen and point out flaws.

But they love the team with a guarded optimism.

"They lose so many big games that sometimes they just take away my spirit," said Fernando Gutierrez, 55, who was hurrying home from Olvera Street to catch the game.

Local TV anchor and avid Mexico soccer fan Leon Krauze best summed up the feelings of the fan base Friday when he tweeted: #PrayforelTri.

As the clock wound down on the crucial game, Mexico found itself in a familiar situation.

After an encouraging first half and an equally discouraging second half, in which Mexico blew a penalty that would have given it some cushion, Panama scored with less than 10 minutes to go, seemingly robbing Mexico of its World Cup aspirations.

The air seemed to go out of the room in El Rinconcito del Mar. Fans avoided eye contact with one another. They did not want to talk about the team's impending fate and all the miracles the team would need to reach the World Cup if the score stood.

"Te dije!" (I told you so!) Roberto Lupercio yelled.

Then the Mexican team came through with a winning goal in the most spectacular fashion: a bicycle kick from almost 17 yards out with less than five minutes to go.

Lupercio wore a cheek-to-cheek smile after the game. But when asked about Tuesday's match against Costa Rica, he grimaced.

"Hay que ganar como sea" (We have to win no matter what), Calvo said.

El Tri lived to fight another day.

james.barragan@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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