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Mexico in a dilemma: WC or elections?

World Cup soccer may pose challenge for the already troubled Mexican presidential candidates, as soccer frenzy sweeps through the country.

india Updated: May 08, 2006 17:02 IST

The world's top soccer tournament begins June 9 in Germany, and that means Mexico's presidential race - just like almost everything else in the country - will grind to a virtual halt for as long as the national team keeps winning.

"Soccer is first. The craziness surrounding soccer is second. Then there is the rest of the world," said writer and social critic Carlos Monsevias.

Ranked sixth internationally, Mexico opens play on June 11 against Iran. Pollsters say all three major presidential candidates already have trouble getting Mexicans to care about them - and that sharing the national stage with soccer will only make things tougher in the final weeks before the July 2 vote.

"Up until now, the campaign hasn't awakened a major interest. We are seeing 37-38 percent interested," said Jorge Buendia of Ipsos Bimsa polling firm in Mexico City.

"The World Cup will distract the population even more," he added.

Trying on national team jerseys at an open-air market, Marisol Jimenez acknowledged the importance of the election, but said the World Cup takes precedence.

"It's very exciting to have everyone stop and watch Mexico," said Jimenez, a 23-year-old student. "Everyone is unified, not divided behind different candidates."

For the president and elections handpicked most of Mexican history, winning candidates fixed by the ruling party. More recently, parties have courted voters with carefully staged rallies, bringing in supporters to cheer and enjoy free lunches.

But candidates' speeches seem long on promises and short on specifics, leaving many voters disillusioned. Some of the candidates have responded by trying to bask in the soccer stars' reflected glory.

Felipe Calderon, the bespectacled lawyer and economist representing outgoing President Vicente Fox's conservative National Action Party, has made the sport a campaign theme.

Calderon has compared himself to Mexico's world champion under-17 national team. His campaign has staged soccer games where he shows off his ball-handling skills for the media. Roberto Madrazo, whose Institutional Revolutionary Party controlled Mexico's presidency from 1929 until losing to Fox in 2000, plans to fill soccer stadiums with screaming supporters watching the national team play on big screens.

"We have taken it into consideration and circled the dates of the World Cup," he said.

Surveys show a tightening race between Calderon, Madrazo and former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who prefers baseball to soccer.

And while Calderon and Lopez Obrador wouldn't describe their plans in detail, the start of the tournament means the candidates most likely will run wall-to-wall TV and radio campaign ads, especially when Mexico is playing and voters by the millions tune in.

"It's the most important product placement there is," Buendia said.

Televisa is Mexico's largest network. With about 70 percent of the nation's viewers, it provides many with their only source of political news.

The network also owns three Mexican League soccer teams and expects to make about US$75 million from World Cup ads, as well as a similar amount from campaign commercials.

Mexico's restrictive campaign laws, including a vague clause barring candidates from 'any expression that implies diatribe, defamation, slander or insults,' don't prohibit presidential hopefuls from donning national team jerseys.

But players rarely endorse politicians, fearing they'll alienate fans. And unlike in the United States, few Mexican sports stars later run for office, something fans say the parties might want to reconsider.

"You put the national team up there. I mean any player, and you would get more votes than the candidates," said Luis Sanchez, a 22-year-old mechanic.

"For us, they are heroes." First-round wins for Mexico in the World Cup could spark a wave of optimism that could benefit Calderon but that should only last until the team loses," Buendia said.

Mexico's fiercely nationalistic soccer commentators are predicting first-round victories in Group D, which includes Angola, Portugal and Iran. If the national team reaches the second round, it will play June 24 or 25 - the weekend before the vote.

There are no games scheduled for the Sunday of the election, though it's possible Mexico could play in quarterfinals that Friday or Saturday. Mexico has never won a World Cup.

"Mexicans are already used to the national team not getting it done," said Ulises Beltran, who advised former presidents Carlos Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo. "The people can get really excited, but history should have taught them better."