It’s Saturday morning at Deportes Prieto in Boyle Heights, an Eastside sporting goods mecca that was built on soccer, or fútbol, as it's known in the Spanish-speaking world. Many customers arriving to pick up team jerseys and other supplies have one thing on their minds: The unthinkable.
For the first time in more than 20 years, Mexico's national soccer team might not make it to next year's World Cup competition.
Fans are reeling from last week, when the U.S. team beat Mexico 2-0, making it a strong possibility that Mexico could be eliminated. At the venerated sporting goods store on First Avenue, where a display of green Mexico soccer jerseys sits near the counter, the mood Saturday alternated between gloom, denial and downright optimism.
"If they don't make it, it's going to be a national disaster," said Pedro Prieto, whose father opened the store in 1974. "But I think, I'm confident, that they will make it."
When he talks about a national disaster, Prieto is referring to what might happen on Mexican soil if the team fails to qualify. Affectionately known as “El Tri,” for the tricolor Mexican flag, the team must win upcoming matches with Panama and Costa Rica to move forward as a wild card contender. A new coach was appointed last week, but at this point it's going to take a near miracle for Mexico to make it to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
If the team doesn't qualify, Southern California will undoubtedly share the pain. Some business analysts predict TV ratings will slip, merchandise sales will plummet, and legions of fans will stay home from restaurants and sports bars airing World Cup matches.
Meanwhile, after beating Mexico last week in Columbus, Ohio, the U.S. team is heading to Brazil. Which makes things a little awkward for Mexico fans in the U.S.
Luis Figueroa of Bell, who was born and raised in the U.S. said without Mexico in the lineup, "they might as well not even show the World Cup over here, because half the people here in California won’t even see it.”
Figueroa, 33, grew up watching soccer with his Mexican immigrant dad. He likes and supports the U.S. team, he said, but cheering for the Mexican team has always been a family thing.
“I support the U.S. and I support Mexico, being that I come from a Mexican family and I was born in the U.S. So you know, hard divides," he said. "But yeah, you still have the pressure in our house, you always have to see Mexico. The U.S. team is fun to see right now, but it doesn’t give you that emotion."
Sports treason? Not really, says Armando Vazquez-Ramos, who teaches Chicano studies at Cal State Long Beach. A Mexico soccer fan himself, he knows a thing or two about divided loyalties. While many Mexican Americans support the U.S. team, there are powerful emotions surrounding family and tradition that come with rooting for Mexico.
There's something else about El Tri's appeal to immigrants and their families.
“We have a syndrome called “el ya merito” – almost, we almost made it – a 'we could have been a contender’ type of mentality," Vazquez-Ramos said. " I think it has to do with our own identity, with an underclass, an immigrant population that has now grown to become the largest ethnic minority in the United States. There has always been this identification with the underdog."
Still,Vazquez-Ramos predicts many Mexican Americans will root for the U.S. if Mexico fails to qualify, even though he says there’s something missing for fans, because soccer is experienced differently in the United States.
Kids in the U.S. play on well-equipped AYSO teams, not in the street or on dirt lots with whatever equipment they can scrape together. Sure, soccer has become more popular here in recent decades. But it still doesn’t ignite the same kind of passion that it does in Latin America. The yearning to cheer for a team that reflects their own soccer experience may make some older, first–generation immigrants more inclined to support another Latin American teams, like Brazil, or even Argentina.
At Deportes Prieto, Manuel "Meño" Moran shops for a Mexico team jersey - a birthday present for his brother. Moran is a first–generation immigrant. But he says if Mexico doesn't make it, he'll throw his support behind the U.S. He sees it as a matter of civic duty to root for his adopted country's home team.
"I think I need to - how do you say 'apoyar?' - support the USA," Moran said. "It is the second house for Mexicans."
But if Mexico is absent, Moran says he won’t be going out to watch the games: "I don’t know, I need to stay home and see the TV."
El Tri gets its next chance for redemption on October 11, when the Mexican national team plays Panama on its own home turf, in Mexico City.
KPCC's online polls are not scientific surveys of local or national opinion. Rather, they are designed as a way for our audience members to engage with each other and share their views. Let us know what you think on our Facebook page, facebook.com/kpcc, or in the comments below.