Mexico fans cheer for future in loss

Mexico fans celebrate (as if they'd won) after a 3-1 loss eliminated their team from the World Cup. Scott French/Special to ESPNLosAngeles.com

LYNWOOD, Calif. -- Those happening upon the fountain fronting Plaza Mexico on Sunday afternoon -- at least those who hadn't heard the score -- would have been astonished to learn that Argentina, with the help of poor officiating and one horrid defensive error, had dominated Mexico in a World Cup showdown half a world away.

There before them were dozens of Mexican fans, all in green and red -- and a few in those nifty new black Tricolores jerseys -- going nuts: screaming, singing, waving flags, jumping up and down, and marching one way and then the next.

It was a celebration worthy of a victory over the South American giant, one that proclaimed Mexico fans' belief that, no matter the result in Johannesburg, this is the start of something big.

The ecstatic fans had snaked through the crowded courtyard at Lynwood's Mexican-themed shopping center, where at least 1,000 gathered to watch the round of 16 clash, and to the fountain with a series of chants: "Baby steps!" "Chicharito!" "Mexico!" Finally, "Four more years!"

That's when the "baby steps" taken by El Tri, as Mexico's national team is known, could become massive steps. There's a sleeping giant in North America, and it's not the U.S.

With an exorbitantly skilled collection of young stars, El Tri appears on the verge of something very special. There was talk the past month -- not just among fans, but within the team, too -- that this might be the year Mexico finally joins soccer's elite with a run to the quarterfinals, maybe the semifinals, maybe more. Now the hope, and for some the expectation, is that the real reward awaits when the next World Cup is played in Brazil in four years.

"Mexico lost, but we're so happy because they played so good," said Hector Martinez, 23, of Hawthorne, who sported a soccer-themed poncho and bandanna in Mexico's colors. "So, you know, we're waiting for four more years, and maybe we're going to be in better places.

"We don't make it right now, but maybe in four years we're going to make it."

It was a triumphant finish to a difficult day for most who gathered at Plaza Mexico, where at least a half-dozen sites were showing the game. Fans arrived in Mexico jerseys, with Mexico flags, in green and red face paint, some in sombreros, many with the ubiquitous, droning vuvuzelas.

The upstairs banquet room at La Huasteca restaurant, which offered a $20 breakfast buffet and two big screens to watch the match, was packed an hour before kickoff. Those who couldn't get inside watched on two screens in the adjacent marketplace or headed downstairs to Patrons Lounge. At the other end of the complex, fans lined up to get into La Guelaguetza restaurant.

"I think," said Gloria Santana, 17, of Irvine, queued to get into La Huasteca, "we're going to kick somebody's butt. … I hope we win. We have good players right now. Something might happen."

What did happen wasn't good. Mexico, which started the game so well, was knocked down by a horrid decision that allowed a goal by Argentine star Carlos Tevez, clearly offside, to stand. Seven minutes later, defender Ricardo Osorio misplayed the ball, enabling Argentina's Gonzalo Higuain to score a second goal. Mexico gave up another goal, a tremendous Tevez shot, in the second half, and when it was over, Argentina was celebrating a 3-1 victory.

The happiest man in La Huasteca was Long Beach's Oscar Maldonado, 47, who came to the U.S. from Argentina as a child. He wore an Argentina jersey with the number of Lionel Messi, the Albiceleste's biggest star, on the back.

"It's fantastic," he said. "We're doing really well, but [the quarterfinal opponent is] Germany, oh my God! They look fantastic. It's going to be a tough one."

Maldonado was outnumbered. Even his wife and friends wore Mexico shirts. "I'm the only one," he said. "But everyone was cool. Only one guy came up to me and wanted to fight. My friends are all Mexican; they surrounded him [and told him to] leave me alone."

For Mexico fans, it was a disappointing finish to a World Cup that had begun with so much promise. As fans flooded into Plaza Mexico before kickoff, there was great optimism. Yes, Argentina had bowled over its group-stage foes, but there was only so much quality in its group, most of it in sky blue, black and white. Mexico's young, dynamic attack and veteran leadership in midfield and at the back looked capable of challenging the Albiceleste, if only Aguirre could get his lineup right.

That meant one thing for El Tri supporters: "Chicharito."

"We're going to beat Argentina," said Juan Lopez, 34, of Los Angeles --- decked out in a poncho with Mexico's logo; a "Viva Mexico" sombrero; a Mexican flag; and, naturally, a green vuvuzela. "It's going to be 2-0. It's going to be Chicharito and Cuauhtemoc [Blanco, Mexico's 37-year-old captain], of course."

Of course, but first, Chicharito -- 22-year-old Manchester United-bound forward Javier Hernandez, a third-generation national-teamer whose scoring exploits have thrilled the nation -- must get into Aguirre's starting 11, in place of the Argentina-born Guillermo Franco.

"I hope he's starting today," Lopez said. "He better start today. … I'm pretty sure he's going to start."

Luis Miranda, 22, from Maywood, was thinking similarly: "It's going to be great. Maybe Mexico is going to win, 2-0" -- with goals, he said, by Chicharito and 21-year-old forward Carlos Vela.

Miranda and his older brother, Jose, have spiked their hair and dyed it in the colors of the flag, white flanked by green and red.

"Aguirre? I don't know what he's thinking," he said. "Chicharito should be playing. I don't know why he does that. The other guy … Guille Franco? I don't know why."

Hernandez, who rose to acclaim with 21 goals in 28 games in the twin Apertura-Clausura campaigns that divide the Mexican season into fall and spring championships, comes from regal stock. His maternal grandfather, Tomas Balcazar, played and scored for Mexico at the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland. His father, Javier "Chicharo" Hernandez, was on the roster when El Tri reached the quarterfinals at home in 1986.

"Chicharo," or "pea," was so nicknamed because of his green eyes. "Chicharito," more or less "sweet pea" -- well, that was natural.

And the finishing abilities of Chicharito can't be denied. He scored seven goals in Mexico's preparations for the World Cup, one in the March 3 victory over New Zealand at the Rose Bowl.

That wasn't enough to push him into the lineup, so he came on during the second half of the World Cup opener against South Africa, bringing class to the attack and helping prod Mexico to score a late equalizer. He came off the bench again against France and netted the first goal in a 2-0 victory. And again against Uruguay, although Mexico couldn't overcome a 1-0 deficit.

He's part of a mighty young generation that has El Tri fans believing something special is afoot. Four World Cup youngsters -- Vela, 21-year-old midfielder Giovani Dos Santos, and 22-year-old defenders Efrain Juarez and Hector Moreno -- played on the Mexico team that won FIFA's U-17 World Cup in 2005. Vela plays for London powerhouse Arsenal, and Dos Santos made the climb through Barcelona's system and is property of Tottenham, Arsenal's archrival. Hernandez will be the fourth Mexican in England's Premier League.

Several others from that 2005 side, including captain Patricio Araujo and fellow midfielder Adrian Aldrete, were in the running for World Cup roster berths. And the team in South Africa included Guillermo Ochoa, whom so many Mexican fans thought should have started in the nets. Ochoa and defender Paul Aguilar are just 24, winger Andres Guardado and midfielder Pablo Barrera are 23, and defender Jorge Torres Nilo is 22. Dos Santos' younger brother, Jonathan -- the final cut from the roster -- is 19.

"We have all these young players who I'm sure are going to work hard for the next four years," said Anthony Fernandez, 23, who had driven in from Colton with his friends. "They've been able to get to the 16, at least, and hopefully the next four years, in Brazil, I hope they'll be able to pull it off."

Chicharito was in Aguirre's lineup. Of course, he scored Mexico's goal -- a fine strike, too -- his ninth tally in just 16 international games. It wasn't enough.

"Argentina, they always win," said Sergio Loza, 34, of Anaheim. "In the next four years, we're going to win."

Hans Deleo, 27, of Woodland Hills agreed.

"If they start bringing the young players, maybe we can do better," he said. "It's time to start working and building the team. … Anybody can [contend to win the trophy]. It depends on how much heart you have on your team."

Fernandez's older brother, Alejandro, can envision what the celebration might be like if Mexico takes the next step.

"You know," he said, "it doesn't matter what happened. We lost, 3-1. But we're still going to support our team all the way, win or lose. I can just imagine if we would have won. We lost, and look at us. We lost, and look at us.

"If we would have won … I can't even explain it. It would have been awesome."

Scott French writes the "Football Futbol Soccer" blog for ESPNLosAngeles.com.