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Crowd Kicks Back for the Big Time

Times Staff Writer

Consider the unlikelihood of it all: The Mexican and Guyanese national soccer teams travel to Orange County and square off in downtown Santa Ana for the right to go to the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

But there they were at the kickoff Wednesday night, surrounded by 11,000 screaming fans in venerable Santa Ana Stadium. The green, red and white-clad Mexicans, with their backs to the Orange County Jail, were running against the yellow-jerseyed Guyanese, defending the goal a few yards north of Civic Center Drive.

It counted as a home game for Guyana, even though there may not have been a Guyana fan within, oh, two or three miles of the stadium.

An explanation is in order.

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Mexico, Guyana and Guatemala make up one of the qualifying groups for the ’88 Olympic Games. Each country must play the others twice--once at home and once away. But Guyana--it is in northern South America and is best known in this country as the site of the 1978 Jonestown massacre--could not afford to pay for the trip to Mexico and still be host for its own game. So Sudmex Promotions Inc., a Los Angeles-based soccer promoter, stepped in.

“We negotiated . . . to pay all the expenses (of both teams), and we staged the game,” Sudmex president Hugo Bandi said. “There were a lot of negotiations with the Olympic Committee . . . and we had to get the approval of both the North and the Central American futbol associations. It was difficult.”

Sudmex has the exclusive rights to promote games involving the Mexican, Salvadoran and Guatemalan national teams in the United States, Bandi said. Usually, they stage such games in the Los Angeles Coliseum or at San Jose State University.

Given the particular circumstances of this game, though, Sudmex decided to test the market for international soccer in Orange County.

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“Guyana is not a powerhouse in soccer, so it’s not a great attraction,” Bandi said.

“A small stadium with 10 or 11 thousand people will give a better atmosphere than the Coliseum with 20,000 . . . and it will give television coverage a full stadium. . . . This is the perfect game to investigate how Orange County will react.”

Bandi had to be pleased with what he saw Wednesday night.

Soccer fans packed the stadium’s concrete seats and made the aisles all but impassable. Hundreds more sat on the grassy bank behind the north goal, or watched through fences from the street.

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The stadium was a sea of waving Mexican flags. The Mexican players scored goal after goal late in the first half, giving them a virtually insurmountable halftime lead of 4-0.

The arrangements were completed last month, with Sudmex agreeing to pay Santa Ana $3,500 for use of the field.

And so it came to pass that black South Americans with names like Nigel Cummings and Godfrey Gibbons--Guyana was formerly a British colony--were trading kicks Wednesday night with Porfirio Jimenez and Manuel Negrete. Wednesday afternoon, workmen were busy trying to paint out the football lines on the field. Olympic soccer rules mandate that there be only soccer lines, although the paint job didn’t quite do the trick.

Sudmex promised the city it would have the field back in shape by Friday for the other game this week: the Southern Conference Semifinal football game between Santa Ana and El Toro high schools.

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While the soccer game, which marked the Mexican national team’s first appearance in Orange County, has received little publicity in the English-language media, it has generated enormous interest among much of the county’s Latino population.

“This is an historical event for Santa Ana and Orange County,” said Fernando Velo, publisher of Azteca News, a popular Spanish-language weekly newspaper based in Santa Ana. “It is a game for the Olympics . . . and it will be the first time that a soccer game fills up the stadium.”

Ticket sold briskly at most local outlets. The El Toro Carniceria, on West First Street in Santa Ana, had sold out its first two batches of tickets quickly and was running out of its third a few hours before the game Wednesday.

“People seem pretty excited about it,” said Viveca Ibarra, a sales clerk at the busy store. “We sold 600 yesterday in about an hour.

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Raul Rios, 28, of Santa Ana emerged from the store Wednesday afternoon with a ticket in hand, and he said he was happy that, for once, he wouldn’t have to drive to Los Angeles to see Mexico play.

“I think they could have more games here like this,” Rios said in Spanish. “There are a lot of people who like soccer.”

While there are dozens of youth soccer leagues around Orange County, the crowd Wednesday night consisted mostly of boisterous young Latinos, many of them wearing heavy woolen ponchos to protect them from the night chill. Security guards frisked everyone as they entered the stadium, creating long lines at the gates.

Standing out in the crowd was the Upland Celtic soccer club, a group of youngsters who were wearing shiny green soccer jackets and clutching pillows and blankets. Their coach, Matt McDonagh, said he brought the team to the game to give them a chance “to see how this level of soccer is done.”

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The game was broadcast live back to Mexico, and will be shown on Spanish-language stations across the United States in mid-January. Sudmex will not get any of the TV revenue--the Mexican soccer federation owns the rights to the live broadcast--but the company might still make a small profit on the game.

“Sometimes we break even, sometimes we lose,” Bandi said. “If the gate is near $100,000, maybe we’ll make a little money on it. . . . I’m sure we will be doing a lot of games in the future in Santa Ana.”


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