A Mexico World Cup No-Show Would Be an Economic No-No

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Sept. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Something terrible is happening in Mexico: The country’s national soccer team is nearing the abyss of elimination from next year’s World Cup in Brazil. A bit hyperbolic, I know. After all, Mexico is besieged by much greater ills. But in Mexico, the importance of soccer and its quadrennial celebration can’t be so easily dismissed, and failure to qualify for the World Cup would reverberate off the field long after the fans’ wailing and jeering had stopped.

In a country used to dizzying inequality and increasing political polarization, the green jersey worn by the national futbol team serves as an uncommon unifying social force. Just as in other soccer-crazy countries, Mexicans come together when “El Tri” plays. The country’s domestic Primera Division is one of the continent’s top-grossing leagues, with teams whose appeal rivals that of many world powerhouses. During the last World Cup in South Africa, Mexico’s innovative black jersey outsold all others. According to Adidas AG, more than 1.2 million Mexican shirts were sold worldwide. More than 15,000 Mexicans traveled to South Africa to support their team (each paying at least $10,000 for the pleasure).

All this, mind you, in spite of the team’s enduring mediocrity: Mexico has failed to advance past the round of 16 in its last five World Cups. Apparently, Mexicans don’t care about the team’s obvious lack of excellence: We simply want to watch the team play every four years on the world’s biggest stage, even if the outcome is almost always defeat at the hands of Argentina. That’s the nature of our peculiar passion.

High Stakes

Mexico has failed to qualify before. Back in 1973, while playing in the qualifying tournament in Haiti, Mexican players fell ill from local voodoo (I kid you not) and didn’t make it to Germany’s World Cup. They also had a lapse prior to the 1982 tournament. But things have changed since then. Now, Concacaf (the governing body for soccer in North and Central America and the Caribbean) organizes the region’s top six teams in a playoff group. After hosting each other in a six-month reciprocity affair, the top three teams earn a ticket to Brazil. The (sort of) lucky fourth-place finishers get to play New Zealand for another spot. Under the current format, Mexico has qualified with certain ease for the last five World Cups. Now, after losing to the U.S., the team sits -- like a swollen, beat-up boxer -- in fifth place. Only two matches are left.

Many will lose if Mexico fails to make it to Brazil. According to Rogelio Roa, a Mexican sports-marketing specialist, the economic effects of the fiasco would be devastating for the sport and the many companies it nourishes. “Mexico’s team is one of the top-five earners in the sport,” Roa says. “If it doesn’t make it to the World Cup, everything related to it will devaluate. Losses could be upwards of $600 million.” Radio and television stations, both in Mexico and the U.S., would suffer greatly from dismal ratings and the ensuing loss of advertising revenue.

The team’s breakdown would also surely hurt Enrique Pena Nieto, Mexico’s president, and not only because a sporting defeat of historic proportions undermines the narrative he has been trying hard to impose since he took office. Pena Nieto’s reformist agenda faces scrutiny and growing -- if not definitive -- resistance, and the government stands to benefit from the welcome social respite the World Cup brings every four years. But the image of a lost generation of young Mexican sportsmen would be a sad reminder of the perils of paralysis for a country that has already squandered a sizable chunk of its demographic dividend. No wonder Peña Nieto recently ad-libbed: “Every Mexican is hopeful. We trust the team will reach its goal. Mexico’s president se la juega con la Seleccion Nacional” -- all in with Mexico’s national team.

Patriotic Pride

But suits with long faces and disappointed politicians should be the least of Mexico’s worries if the team somehow bungles its next two games (and the very probable visit to the land of the Kiwis). My main concern is the fans. I once had a long debate on Twitter with someone who insisted that soccer was nonsense, its cultural and social significance blown out of proportion. I asked him if he had ever had the privilege of joining the raucous Mexican crowd in one of the many games the national team plays in the U.S. every year. He hadn’t, of course.

But I had. Mexico was playing a lesser opponent and, because the game had been hastily organized, the team hadn’t even brought its most famous players. None of that mattered to the crowd. They had been waiting a long time to see the men in green play. They cheered every move, stood up every time the team approached the goal. Their enthusiasm exceeded anything else I had witnessed back in Mexico, even at Mexico City’s imposing Azteca Stadium at its most boisterous. In the end, Mexico won easily. And the crowd went wild again, wide smiles all around, patriotic pride reignited. “It’s Mexico. This is Mexico,” one fan told me. And he was right. For the briefest 90 minutes, every Mexican there experienced a sense of belonging long lost from their everyday lives in the U.S. The team was their way back to Mexico. The team was Mexico.

Those fans deserve better today. Come summer 2014, they deserve to cheer as loudly. I sure hope they have the chance.

(Leon Krauze is the main anchor for Univision’s KMEX in Los Angeles and a former historian of the Mexican national soccer team. Follow him on Twitter at @leon_krauze.)

To contact the writer of this article: Leon Krauze at lkrauze@univision.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.