Politics and soccer mingle as World Cup-crazy Mexico heads to polls

Groundswell of support for national team ahead of Brazil match could translate into more votes for insurgent leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador

Supporters of Mexico's presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at a rally at the Azteca stadium in Mexico City, on June 27, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / RONALDO SCHEMIDT)
Supporters of Mexico's presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at a rally at the Azteca stadium in Mexico City, on June 27, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / RONALDO SCHEMIDT)

MEXICO CITY, Mexico (AFP) — Whoever wins Mexico’s presidential election Sunday will have to vie for attention with a formidable rival, one that can either stoke the victory party or stamp it out: soccer in Russia.

Just hours after the winner of the presidential race is expected to be known, Mexico will face Brazil in the last 16 of the World Cup, giving the country yet another contest to watch on tenterhooks.

Both the election and the knockout match in the Russian city of Samara could mark a new chapter for the world’s most populous Spanish-speaking country.

In Sunday’s vote, the heavy favorite is the fiery leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who looks poised to oust the two parties that have governed Mexico for nearly a century, and who promises a “radical” change in course.

In Monday’s match, the heavy favorites are the five-time champions Brazil, who are lead by the world’s most expensive player, Neymar.

A football fan wearing a mask of Mexican former footballer Luis Alberto Alves -Zague- celebrates after Mexico passed through to the next round of the World Cup, after watching the match between Mexico and Sweden on a screen at the Angel de la Independencia Monument in Mexico City, on June 27, 2018. (AFP / Johan ORDONEZ)

But the Mexicans are daring to hope for the best, after upsetting Germany in their opening match and helping send the reigning champs packing in the group stage.

“The social mood is very positive right now thanks to Mexico’s performance at the World Cup,” said professor Aurelio Collado Torres of the Monterrey Institute of Technology.

Will soccer influence politics? Collado Torres said optimism over the national team “could translate into a larger vote for Lopez Obrador,” who has generated a groundswell of support from poor and working-class Mexicans.

Competing priorities

Once every 12 years, the World Cup and Mexico’s presidential elections coincide.

“Ever time, the question arises over the relative importance of each,” said Felix Fernandez Christileb, a former goalkeeper for the Mexican national team who is now a TV commentator and presenter for Univision Deportes.

“We Mexicans know what’s trivial and what’s important. Politics is getting less and less trivial, and football is getting more and more important,” he joked.

Many Mexicans are holding their breath, for one contest or both.

Mexico’s presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at the Azteca stadium in Mexico City, on June 27, 2018.

That is the case for Miguel Diaz, a 52-year-old sales clerk who has been rooting for two-time presidential runner-up Lopez Obrador to win the presidency for years.

He is a soccer fan, too, but argues that a Lopez Obrador victory over his top rivals — Ricardo Anaya of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and Jose Antonio Meade of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) — would be the more important event.

“The football match is one day, the political outcome will last six years,” Diaz said.

“A victory for Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is the most important thing that could happen to Mexico.”

Not everyone agrees.

“People have no idea what’s going to happen in this country. They think a leftist president can save Mexico,” said a 56-year-old man, declining to give his name, as he purchased US dollars at a Mexico City exchange house.

He wanted a safe currency, he said, because he fears what could happen after the elections.

(L to R) Mexico’s presidential candidates Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Ricardo Anaya, Jose Antonio Meade, and independent candidate Jaime “The Bronco” Rodriguez Calderon are seen in undated file pictures from 2018. (AFP)

Still, he was finding time to focus on soccer.

“The World Cup is a religion, there’s nothing more important,” he said.

Politics and soccer also intertwined on Wednesday, the last day of the campaign and Mexico’s final group stage match.

Hours after Mexico made it through to the last 16 — despite losing 3-0 to Sweden that day — Lopez Obrador held his final campaign rally in one of the legendary venues of Mexican football: Azteca stadium.

Mexico’s Hirving Lozano, center, celebrates scoring his side’s opening goal during a match against Germany at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, June 17, 2018. (Antonio Calanni/AP)

“We’re going to win, but our victory has to be overwhelming,” he shouted to tens of thousands of cheering supporters, standing near the spot where Argentine legend Diego Maradona scored his infamous “hand of God” goal against England in the 1986 World Cup.

But nothing is ever certain, in politics or football.

“What’s worrying is that if Lopez Obrador and Mexico both lose, we’re going to have a lot of problems in this country,” said Collado Torres.

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