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Soccer mania hits Mexico, but not everyone is thrilled

The armored cars patrolling Benito Ju'arez International Airport make it seem as if Mexico is under siege. It is -- by soccer mania. The World Cup soccer tournament opens here tomorrow. When the month-long event is over, a total of 10 billion people worldwide are expected to have tuned in to watch. More than 50,000 fans and 5,000 reporters from other countries are expected to attend.

So far, the only trouble the Army has had at the airport was the near-riot that the arrival of the favored Argentine team provoked.

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Soccer is everywhere. New street signs point the way to the stadium. Grocery stores sell soccer balls and beach towels carrying the insignia of World Cup '86. Radio talk shows debate for hours on end about the players and their teams, and commercials ask Mexicans to be hospitable.

Three giant video screens were erected here to televise the matches to those who don't have the time or money to attend. Newspapers are printing special sections to highlight the teams. Potholes are being filled, bridges painted, and roads paved. But not everything is as festive as it looks. Squatters have been whisked out of their corrugated shacks, and street vendors have been arrested. Government photographers preparing displays for the press center asked some people to step out of street scenes because they were not ``pretty.''

Victims of last September's massive earthquakes have threatened to occupy the main stadium here in the capital, protesting that the government has spent more energy organizing a sporting event than caring for the approximately 40,000 Mexico City residents left homeless for more than eight months. In virtually every demonstration over the last two months, some of the earthquake victims have carried placards with such slogans as: ``The World Cup '86 is an absurdity, when Mexico is dying of hunger and living in the streets.''

The government has responded by earmarking more money for rebuilding housing. In an attempt to prevent an occupation of the stadium, the government has promised to help neighborhood groups buy buildings.

Mexico is eager to put on its best appearance, since it hopes that the soccer final at the end of June will be the spark that tourism here needs to pull itself out of a five-year slump. With that in mind, the poorest slum in Mexico City has just had a face lift. Nezahualcoyotol's 3 million people, many of them children, live largely without paved streets, running water, electricity, or sanitation. Their cardboard homes have one or two rooms.

Thanks to the fact that the stadium in Neza, as locals call it, is being used for the World Cup, main roads are freshly macadamized. Electricity has been installed, and fresh paint glistens. And apparently to cut down on the expense and work, a new stucco wall has gone up to block the stadium from the slum. Unless a soccer enthusiast gets terribly lost, he is not likely to encounter the misery just off the main thoroughfares.

Most Neza residents were pleased with the cleanup -- until the bill came. Each family has to pay $360 for the renewal. This was a shock, given that most people there spend 70 percent of their tiny incomes for food. Despite this burden, most acquiesced to paying $10 a month.

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The government is worried about two kinds of violence. It is concerned that terrorists may use such a large international event for publicity. It is also concerned that soccer fans may begin riots, as happened last year in Europe. In an effort to guard against violence, 30,000 policemen, troops, and security agents have been put on alert. They are trying to isolate teams and fans to prevent past sources of violence.

The players have their own concerns about playing in Mexico. Eight of the nine stadiums are in cities of more than mile-high altitude. Players say it will change their playing style. In the capital, the players are concerned about heavy pollution, which is especially bad at midday when many of the matches will be played. Mexico hopes to earn about $150 million from the event. However, not all tickets have sold, and Mexican and European travel agents have begun to offer bargain prices. 30--{et

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