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Mexicans are disappointed that their team didn't do well at the World Cup

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Mexico is one of the great soccer countries in the world, which explains why Mexicans are so sad about their national soccer team. It was eliminated in the worst performance at a World Cup since 1978. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Even before the World Cup started, Mexicans were already girding for heartbreak. Jorge Pineda, 29, was selling team jerseys near the Zocalo. But when I ask him how he thinks his team will do, his face contorts.

JORGE PINEDA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "Frankly," he says, "bad."

PINEDA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: He says the team isn't even good enough to get past the group stage, the first round of the World Cup. Mexicans have reason to despair. This football-crazed nation has never won the World Cup, and the last time the team made it to quarterfinals was back in 1986. Pineda says sometimes he lets himself dream that his Tricolor could win it all.

PINEDA: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "But," he says, stopping himself, "the higher we fly, the harder the fall."

Across the street, Aztec healers perform ritual cleansings.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER TRICKLING)

PERALTA: With conchs and herbs and fire, they promise to cleanse your problems. Maybe, I suggest, the national team should have stopped here first. Pineda laughs. He's not sure anything would work on them.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONCH HORN)

PERALTA: But miracles do happen here in Mexico. The virgin Guadalupe appeared to San Juan Diego and left her image on his mantle. It's why so many Mexicans became Catholic. The Cruz Azul, the Bad News Bears of Mexican soccer, made it to the finals six times. And each time, they choked. But last year, they finally won a championship. But as the World Cup kicked off, the Mexican squad looked mediocre. They tied to Poland in a scoreless match. They lost 2-nil to Argentina. And that left them with an almost impossible task to stay in the tournament. They not only had to beat Saudi Arabia, they had to do it with multiple goals.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Spanish).

PERALTA: After the first half, it actually seemed possible. The Tri came alive. They attacked aggressively. And the crowd, watching on a big screen in downtown Mexico City, started to believe.

LUPITA MERCADO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: Lupita Mercado says, as a Mexican, hope is what dies last.

MERCADO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: Her grandma used to tell her, the cornered cat will always make a great escape. And for the second half, Mexico defied all odds - a goal at 46 minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

PERALTA: A goal at 51 minutes. In the end, a staggering performance - 24 shots on goal. They beat the Saudis 2-to-1. But it wasn't enough. The team missed the next round on a goal difference. Over and over, I heard, this is football in Mexico. You let yourself believe, and it always ends in heartbreak.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF REUBEN VAUN SMITH'S "UNDER THE THUNDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.