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Always a sport that incites extravagant response, it provoked an entire nation to a vast emotional spree at the World Cup competition in Mexico as the home team enjoyed some early successes

The Mexicans have a word for it—la locura. La locura means a mixture of madness and folly. Add to that marimba music, murder, serenades and suicide and you have a rather feeble description of the psychedelic atmosphere of the competition for the world soccer championship in Mexico.

Under the best of conditions, soccer seems to breed far more emotion than any other team sport. At all four locations where World Cup games were played in Mexico—Guadalajara, León, Mexico City and Toluca-Puebla—the players and officials were protected from the crowds by barbed wire and a moat, a not unreasonable precaution, because in far less important matches officials and players have been stomped to death by frustrated fans. None of the players on the 16 national teams competing in the quadrennial tournament for the Jules Rimet Cup have suffered any direct physical damage from the fans. That is probably the result, in good measure, of the very efficient organization of the games by the Mexicans, and traffic and crowd control at most of the sites has been exemplary. Only in the opening game at Mexico City's Aztec Stadium, a massive, handsome structure built for the World Cup, did the organization break down. Besieged by a happy, howling mob of 112,504 flag-waving fans who had come in a fantastic variety of cars, buses and trucks and on bicycles, burros and huaraches, the Mexican police gave up the battle. They stood about in small, philosophical groups discussing the weather, the odds on a Mexican victory over Russia and the vicissitudes of life for a traffic cop surrounded by idiots.

The result was chaos. The stadium opened at 8:30 a.m. but the people bearing banners, bocadillos (Mexican sandwiches) and picnic blankets began arriving at 7. By 10, still two hours before game time, the environs of the stadium had been choked in a stupendous traffic jam. Cars were parked in the middle of an expressway, on the shoulders of the access roads, in no-parking zones and on sidewalks. The unfortunate drivers who could not find illegal parking places honked "Meh-he-co, Meh-he-co, Meh-he-co" in ear-splitting cadence or deserted their cars to buy Mexican flags from the ubiquitous roadside stands.

The game itself hardly justified all the excitement. The Russians, playing with the patterned discipline of the European style of soccer, seemed content to settle for a tie and, surprisingly, so did the Mexicans. The result was a cautious 0-0 draw, reminiscent of the opening of the World Cup competition in England in 1966 when England and Uruguay produced the same result in the same kind of game. The fans whistled at the Russians for what they considered rough play and whistled at the officials for not being more strict, but they were really rather good-humored about the whole thing.

For the first two weeks, play was divided into four-team divisions, the strongest of which was the one in Guadalajara, comprised of England, the defending world champion, Brazil, twice holder of the championship, and Rumania and Czechoslovakia, two very strong European sides. The first two teams in each division qualified for the quarterfinal knockout competition.

The key game in the first week was between England and Brazil. Brazil was generally conceded to be the best of the Latin American teams, and England, on the basis of its 1966 championship and continuing success since then, was considered the most formidable European side. The English team is coached by Sir Alf Ramsey, a phlegmatic, balding man who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1966 after taking England to the title. Sir Alf is a notably silent knight, who speaks sparingly to English journalists and almost not at all to others. He made his position bluntly clear when he arrived in Mexico. "We have not come here to win a tournament of courtesies," said he. "We have come to play soccer."

The English irritated their Mexican hosts in a number of other ways. They brought their own bottled water, their own bacon and sausage and even their own bus, equipped with high-back seats and card tables. Since there is a Mexican law banning the import of any food that might transmit hoof and mouth disease, the English supplies were destroyed on arrival and the team had to subsist on Mexican salchichas, sausages considerably hotter than their British equivalent. A leather merchant in Mexico City expressed the feeling of his countrymen. "We consider them our huéspedes," he said. "You know, when you have guest in your house, is for him everything of the best. The best to eat, the best to drink, the best of your courtesy. And our sausages—I have not eaten of the sausages of England, but I can tell you Mexican sausage...." he kissed his fingers and rolled his eyes. "But when you do all this for your guest and he turns away"—he turned away and looked very much like a man who has stepped in something unpleasant—"then you no longer have a feeling of pleasure with your guest."

The feeling of pleasure did not last long in Guadalajara, and the Mexicans, with the assistance of the 2,000 Brazilians on hand to support their team, employed a peculiarly Latin method of expressing their displeasure. They serenaded the British team en masse. A serenade, Mexican or Brazilian style, is a pleasant thing, but not when it is rendered at 3 in the morning by some 200 people, most of them equipped with drums, frying pans, horns, scratchers and various other noisemaking devices. The first night the serenaders entertained the British delegation they were finally driven off by armed guards who fired a volley into the air to make their point. The volley served the double purpose of convincing the serenaders that they should leave and awakening the few English players who had slept through the music.

By the time more than 70,000 fans had gathered in Guadalajara's modern, bowl-shaped stadium for the match between England and Brazil, sentiment had been totally polarized. Five thousand-odd Englishmen cheered for the British, and everyone else backed Brazil.

The game itself was a good one, and the odds are that it was watched on television by the biggest audience in history. In England 29 million saw it, making the British viewing strength almost equivalent to the one that watched the first moon landing and the return of the crew of Apollo 13 to earth. (Estimates of the worldwide audience for the matches in Mexico ranged from 700 million to a billion.)

The English dominated the early going, moving deliberately in the white, hot sun. Their defense was superb. It was almost 10 minutes before the Brazilians had a reasonable shot at goal, and when they did, Gordon Banks, the veteran English goalkeeper who is generally regarded as one of the best in the world, made an astonishing, acrobatic save on a header by Pelé. The goal that gave Brazil a 1-0 victory came 14 minutes into the second half, as the result of a lovely bit of team play involving what is probably the strongest trio of attackers in all of soccer—Edson Arantes do Nascimento (Pelé), Jair Ventura Filho (Jairzinho) and Eduardo Goncalves de Andrade (Tostao).

Tostao started it, moving against the right side of the English defense, dribbling the ball carefully under pressure from three English defenders. Without looking, he tapped the ball sideways to Pelé. "I didn't see Pelé while I was dribbling," he said later, "but I knew where he would be because every time I go to my left he covers the center. I wasn't wrong."

Pelé took the ball directly in front of the English goal, well within shooting range, and might reasonably have taken the shot. But he saw two English defenders moving over to block him, so he sent a gentle, beautifully accurate pass wide to his right, to Jairzinho. "I didn't shoot because I saw the road was closed," he said. "And I saw Jairzinho was placed better."

Jairzinho took one step, then rocketed the ball past Banks—who had come out of the goal mouth in a desperate attempt to deny Jairzinho an angle. "Tostao and Pelé, with their talent, were the authors of the goal," Jairzinho said. "I just took the shot, putting everything I had in it, all my heart. With my teammates, I can score many goals. It's marvelous playing beside men like Pelé and Tostao. They can be off most of a game, then have an instant of genius, which is enough."

Late in the game England missed at least two clear opportunities to score. Said Sir Alf, "The best team did not win today. Brazil was a very good team in an even match. They took their one chance and we failed in ours."

The Brazilian victory, coupled with Mexico's 4-0 win over El Salvador in Mexico City, set off a night of riotous carnival all over Mexico. Guadalajara, a modern, clean city that looks as if it had been transplanted from Southern California, went berserk. Normally a dignified community, it is also the home of the mariachi band, an affront to the eardrum consisting of guitars of various sizes, violins and trumpets. The trumpets dominated the sound, and Sir Alf and the English team probably slept little that night.

The Mexican victory over El Salvador hardly seemed reason enough for the madness that lasted all night in Mexico City. An apocryphal story making the rounds of the bars in the city before the match indicates what small chance El Salvador was given to beat anyone. The El Salvador coach is supposed to have approached Sir Alf and said, "Sir Alfred, we are a poor nation, struggling to get along. Could you give me some tips on training?"

"The secret is work, work, work." Sir Alf told him. "When we practice, we set up 11 garbage cans as an obstacle course for our players to work around."

A week later Sir Alf ran into the El Salvador coach again. "How did it go?" he asked.

The coach shook his head sadly. "The garbage cans beat us two in a row," he said.

The population of Mexico City could not have cared less whether their team had defeated El Salvador, 11 garbage cans or England. The Mexicans poured into the streets, ignoring a drenching rain. They climbed the portico over the entrance to the Maria Isabel Hotel, press headquarters for the World Cup, and dislodged a 12-foot-in-diameter fiberglass soccer ball. Then they rolled it two miles down 20th of November Street to the principal square of the city—the Zocalo—where they tore it to bits for souvenirs. For the most part the celebration was innocuous enough, but an ominous note of violence crept in later as the Mexican tipples of tequila, pulque and beer began to take effect. Herminio Gonzalez, apparently an objective soccer fan, had the poor judgment to tell his friend, Epigmenio Sanchez Luna, that Mexico's victory over El Salvador did not prove much, since the Salvadorean team was, in his words, "a lemon." Gonzalez was shot through the heart for his honesty. Three other Mexicans met violent deaths in soccer arguments during the first two weeks. In El Salvador no one was murdered, but the defeat caused a suicide. Eighteen-year-old Amelia Bolanosafter, watching El Salvador lose on TV, retired to her room and shot herself through the right temple.

In the other venues in Mexico the jubilation was not quite as uncontrolled. In León, the pedestrian shoe capital of the nation, West Germany demonstrated a clear superiority over the competition, and a surprisingly strong Peruvian team moved into the quarterfinals with the Germans. Morocco, whose coach had said earlier that he realized his was the "funny team" in the tournament and that the team had come to learn, not to win, played an inspired, scrambling game against the Germans to hold them to a 2-1 victory, then subsided into learning. In Toluca-Puebla, Israel, a team of amateurs, held Sweden and Italy to draws, but the Italians and Uruguay finally qualified also.

Mexico initiated another night of carnival by beating a rough Belgium team 1-0 in Mexico City, and entering the quarterfinal with Russia. Six more were killed. At the time one shuddered at the thought of what would happen if the Mexicans went on and won the Cup. "If Mexico wins," said one happy official, "we will have another revolution."

The last revolution was in 1910, but the next one will be delayed at least four more years, because the hosts were eliminated in the quarterfinal round on Sunday. An Italian team that had been improving steadily over the course of the tournament won easily 4-1 as its star, Luigi Riva, scored two goals.

On the same day the celebrated English defense failed for the first time. England led West Germany 2-0 at the half, but yielded two goals to send the match into overtime. Then the superb Gerd Muller scored his eighth goal on the Mexican scene to knock out the defending champions. Before the match the Germans had received a cable from Chancellor Willy Brandt urging them to avenge their overtime defeat by England in the 1966 Cup final in London. They did not match the score of that defeat (4-2), but the 3-2 victory was good enough to put them in the semifinal round against Italy.

Brazil faced Uruguay in the other semifinal after beating Peru and Russia respectively, and the pairings assured a Europe-Latin American final this week. As Pelé continued to perform in the style that has earned him worldwide accolade—he was the key player in all four of Brazil's goals against Peru—the Brazilians were considered strong favorites to win the Cup.



Balloons fly and flags are paraded before Mexico plays Russia in Mexico City. In Guadalajara a massive statue flanks the stadium.


Outnumbered more than 10 to 1, British partisans at the Brazil-England match saw their team lose despite fine saves by Goalie Gordon Banks (above) and flying heroics of Bobby Charlton.


Wildly celebrating crowds filled streets leading to Mexico City's Independence statue after the host team beat Belgium with this goal.