MEXICO CITY -- To Mexicans, it's just unthinkable: Their soccer-crazed country stands a chance of not qualifying for the World Cup.
Worse yet, it was a 2-0 loss Tuesday night to their bitter northern rival -- the U.S. -- that has left Mexico out of position for a spot in next year's 32-nation tournament. The team known as the Tri has only two games left to make up ground.
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It's a front-page disaster. One newspaper calls it the "Tritanic." A sample of other headlines: "Fiasco," "Crisis," "Dreadful."
"People see this as the country failing them, especially when it means it may not qualify for the World Cup," said Miguel Angel Lara, an academic who studies sports and society at the Ibero-American University. "Seeing the national team losing like that, two times in a row, really generates hopelessness and disappointment."
Lara says it hurts Mexicans even more because the losing streak comes only a year after Mexico won the gold medal after beating Brazil 2-1 in the London Olympics, an under-23 tournament. They lost their grip with one disappointing draw after the next at the supposedly imposing Azteca Stadium, without scoring goals.
"Our frustration is worse. Take away food from a poor man who you've been feeding for eight days. Just see what happens," he said.
Mexico has not missed a World Cup since 1990. But even then it wasn't because the team lost in their qualifying group, but because FIFA punished it for lying about players' ages.
Altogether, Mexico has scored only four goals in the North and Central American and Caribbean finals this year, dropping into fifth place in the group of six countries. The most likely, and even upbeat, scenario is that the team heads to a playoff against New Zealand to qualify for the world tournament.
Fears are also escalating that if Mexico doesn't go to Brazil for the World Cup, companies that have invested tens of millions for marketing and broadcast rights won't reap the expected revenue.
Rogelio Roa, commercial director of the sports marketing firm DreaMatch, says his company estimates that consumer brands and TV stations won't make about $600 million in selling products and services if Mexico stays home.
"It is worrying all of us involved in the industry," he said. "I am confident that Mexico can overcome this."
The rivalry between Mexico and the United States dates back decades, but arguably the most heartbreaking loss to the U.S. came in 2002 when the American team beat Mexico 2-0, throwing it out of World Cup in South Korea and Japan. Then, last year, the U.S. team made history at Azteca with a 1-0 victory for the first time in 75 years at that stadium.
"It hurts not to go to the World Cup, but also losing to the U.S. I don't know if it's because it's our neighbor or because now we know we are the worst ones," said Ruben Galindo, a 40-year-old employee at Mexico City's motor vehicles department.
Even before the loss to the U.S., Jose Manuel "Chepo" De la Torre had been fired as coach in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday, right after Mexico's hair-pulling home loss to Honduras, in which the Tri fell 2-1 after holding a one-goal lead.
The woes of the national team, venerated almost as much as Mexico's patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, are adding to the anxiety sparked by teacher protests that have blocked major roads and created more traffic in the nation's capital.
Soccer is such a big deal that teachers protesting against a newly adopted education reform complain that Mexicans demand more from the national team's soccer coach than of their president.
"I say: `We have to be optimistic. It can win,"' said Mariana Villalobos, a 28-year-old who sells used clothing on the street. "But then you see how the other team scores once, then twice, and we lose our spirit."