In Mexico, Olympic gold is a welcome chance to celebrate

MEXICO CITY — Mexico needed this.

Barely had the whistle signaled the end of the Olympics soccer final, and those bright gold medals had yet to be hung on 18 broad-grinned athletes, when thousands of Mexicans filled city squares across the country, in song, revelry and a rare moment of unmitigated celebration.

Mexico’s first gold medal in the 2012 London Olympic Games. Its first-ever medal of any color, in men’s soccer, a sport that is an unrivaled national passion.

And against Brazil. Brazil!

In restaurants, on the streets and from their homes, Mexicans cheered and broke into a favorite folk song, “Cielito Lindo”: “Ay, ay, ay, ay. Canta, no llores….” (Sing, don’t cry...) They blew horns, tooted whistles and hugged anyone in sight, amid shouts of “Viva Mexico!”

With all the country’s troubles — a deadly drug war, sluggish economy and uncertain political transition — Saturday’s 2-1 triumph over favored Brazil at Wembley Stadium in London was validation and respite.

“This will be encouragement for the entire country,” said Jose Luis Calderon, 34, who runs a security company. “It tells us yes, we can!”

He watched the game at a restaurant in the Mexico City neighborhood of Polanco, where valet parkers joined customers and waiters in giddy rejoicing. His buddy Leonardo Rodriguez, 48, who has a construction company, noted that this wasn’t just any game. This was victory over the force that is Brazil.

“Mexico needs heroes,” he said. “This team, this is it.”

After that sweetest of victories, a human tide swept into the plaza around Mexico City’s iconic Angel of Independence, an imposing statue as golden as those medals. “Campeones! Campeones!” (Champions!) they shouted in unison, waving flags and oversized sombreros, many dressed in the green jerseys of their team, known as the Tri (for Tri-Color — the red, white and green of the Mexican flag).

The plaza more recently has seen angry protests over the July 1 presidential election. Not Saturday.

For 39-year-old Hector Obregon, standing amid the shoulder-to-shoulder the crowd around the Angel, the win was “the most important moment in sports that’s ever happened in the history of this country.”

“This is an escape from all of the frustration and trouble,” said Jaime Lorenzo, 52, who works for a cellphone company.

“They won with their hearts,” said Hector Taber, 25, an architect, who was en route to the Angel after watching the game with his girlfriend, Maricarmen Lezama, in a cantina where bottles of whiskey were given away to anyone who guessed the final score. He was wearing the jersey of revered Mexican player Cuauhtemoc Blanco, No. 10. “He nearly cried!” Lezama said of her beau’s reaction to the win.

In the Mexico City suburb of Santa Fe, over steaming breakfast plates of chilaquiles and mugs of beer, people roared at the victory.

“I am speechless,” said Marco Guzman Torres, a 45-year-old physician. “This is a historic victory, and it makes me very happy to be here with my children and for them to realize that Mexico, yes, can win, and to see the Mexican flag flying in the highest position.”

Ten-year-old Ricardo Gonzalez added, “It was incredible to hear the Mexican anthem. I want to be a soccer player, like them.”

Mexican President Felipe Calderon joined in the flood of congratulatory notes, saying via Twitter, “Gold for Mexico in soccer, a historic achievement for our country. We are happy and proud of our team.”

He was echoed by Javier Hernandez, El Chicharito, maybe the most famous Mexican soccer player today. He plays for Manchester United, the renowned British team, which reportedly would not allow him to play for the Mexican Olympic squad.

“Viva Mexico,” Hernandez said via Twitter. “Thank you thank you thank you. Proudly Mexican, for good and for bad.”

In fact, all the players in Saturday’s match were from Mexican league teams. None of Mexico’s international stars were present (Giovani dos Santos, who initially formed part of the Olympic selection, was sidelined by injury), which may have enhanced a feeling of pride here.

Mexico also struggles with something of an inferiority complex with Brazil, in sports and other fields. Mexico actually has better statistics than Brazil on some things (such as a lower homicide rate), and yet Brazil’s reputation as a regional powerhouse surpasses Mexico’s.

Mexico has in fact defeated Brazil in six of 12 meets since 1999. And so there was a bit of “We showed you!” in some of the reaction Saturday.

“What’s certain today is the [Mexican] youths gave the [Brazilian] veterans a lesson,” said Juan Andiano, 49, another of the revelers at the Angel, “and they are going to play an excellent role in what comes next.”

That would be the 2014 soccer World Cup — in Brazil.

Also contributing to this report were members of the very happy Mexico City Bureau: Richard Fausset, Daniel Hernandez and Cecilia Sanchez.