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Loss Can be Gain in World Cup

Ftbol has been very, very good to Mexico this year

Sports can be transcendent. Most recently, the example of Mexico's national soccer team in the World Cup tournament showed that to be true.

For the first time, Mexico advanced last week to the second round of a World Cup held in Europe, home field to most of the world's strongest teams. Far more important, however, was how the team achieved history: essentially by throwing off the yoke of resignation and fatalism.

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A weepy helplessness and fatalism is part of the Mexican national character. Attribute it to years of paternalistic government, plus two decades of grinding economic crisis.

"Si Dios quiere" (If God wishes) has been the country' s motto - less a religious sentiment than a cultural expression of why something is impossible to accomplish and why it's pointless to try, as if the quality of human effort is simply irrelevant. It results in an omnipresent mediocrity: in sports, business, and especially in government. All of which is why the team's World Cup showing was so exhilarating.

As the tournament approached, Mexican fatalism revved to high levels. Mexico's team had never really shined, though soccer is almost a second national religion. And no international soccer observer gave the team much chance. Mexicans spoke openly of how badly the team would represent the country. The team gained some confidence against South Korea, winning solidly, 3 to 1.

But the real turning point came against Belgium. Down two goals, with one player expelled from the game, Mexico had every excuse it needed to give up. Most Mexicans expected it to do so. Yet the team showed heart - kept insisting. Finally, Belgium had a player expelled. Mexico scored. Then came a dramatic tying goal and the team had broken beyond anyone's expectations.

One commentator was beside himself as the team rallied in the second half: "They're learning how not to be afraid, how not to be little."

No one expected the feat repeated against Holland, a soccer powerhouse. Yet after a first-half stomping, the team showed heart and shellacked Holland in the second half. The game ended in a beautiful moment - one that brought delirium to Mexican streets - with the team scoring a tying goal with less than 10 seconds left. A lesson to us all, trite as it may seem, to never give up.

Against Germany, another of the world's greats, the team again demonstrated its determination and never-say-die spirit. It led much of the way, and only Germany's years of experience allowed it to win.

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Mexicans puffed with pride. Hector Suarez, a comic on Mexican television, wasn't kidding when he said, "Mexico was one way before the World Cup. It's another Mexico now."

After the Holland game, President Ernesto Zedillo said "to want to is to be able to," and that the team "was an example to all Mexicans."

A taxi driver told me, "Maybe [the team] will be an inspiration to our public servants."

In the exuberant coverage, Mexican players, announcers, and fans sprinkled their comments with "Gracias a Dios" (Thanks to God). But people had to do with the team's performance, just as they determine whether customers are served with efficiency, whether streets are paved, or citizens are treated with respect upon entering city hall. It had to do with desire, with demanding excellence of oneself and not settling for the mediocrity that has been Mexico's legacy in sports, business, and government.

The quality of human effort does make a difference. The team's performance was a sublime illustration of that. It was the best example sports can set for human behavior in general. Perhaps now the team's invigorating motto - "Si se puede" (Yes we can) - will begin replacing the cultural expression of "Si Dios quiere" in other, more important, parts of Mexican life.

* Sam Quinones, a Mexico City-based writer, was a recipient of a 1998 Alicia Patterson Fellowship.

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