By Kevin Baxter, Los Angeles Times –
LONDON — Mexico’s national anthem played at a medal ceremony for the first time in the London Olympics on Saturday, following its men’s soccer team’s 2-1 upset of Brazil in the gold-medal match.
But if the country’s Olympic program continues to improve at the pace it has over the last 12 years, the song could be getting a lot more airplay in Rio de Janeiro and beyond.
Because while Saturday’s victory sent fans pouring into the streets of Mexico, it was little more than an emphatic exclamation point to one of the most successful Olympics in Mexico’s history. With seven medals — including the country’s first in archery and soccer — heading into the final day of competition, Mexico has won more here than at any Olympics except the 1968 Games in Mexico City, where it won nine.
It’s all part of a surge that began a few weeks before the 1996 Atlanta Games, where Mexico’s 97 athletes combined for just a single bronze. In the wake of that embarrassment, the government’s sports ministry began staging annual National Olympics, with competition over a wide range of sports. Since then, Mexico has captured 20 Olympic medals, nearly a third of the country’s total in all Olympics. And less than a year ago Mexico had its most successful Pan American Games, winning 133 medals, 42 of them gold.
“It’s been costly. It’s been criticized by some people. But it’s been successful,” says Elbert Pratt, a coach with the country’s national track-and-field team.
The idea came from Ivar Sisnieaga, then president of the national sports committee. Just as important, though, was the fact that Sisnieaga also decentralized sports in Mexico, emphasizing the development of regional programs and training centers outside the capital.
In recent years Mexico has been investing in its young athletes in other ways, too. Not long ago its national soccer federation passed a rule requiring First Division teams to reserve a set amount of game time for up-and-coming players. The results of that were on display Saturday, because while seven of Brazil’s starters play for major European teams, Mexico’s entire roster — save the injured Giovani dos Santos — plays in the country’s domestic league.
Heading into the game, Mexico coach Luis Fernando Tena said his team would need a near-perfect game to beat Brazil — and it may have done better than that.
Many in the Wembley Stadium crowd of 86,163 — the largest to watch a ticketed event in these Games — weren’t even in their seats before Mexico grabbed a 1-0 lead, with midfielder Javier Aquino intercepting a lazy backward pass from Brazilian defender Rafael and sending it to Oribe Peralta, who beat keeper Gabriel just inside the near post less than 30 seconds after the opening whistle.
It was the fastest Olympic goal since FIFA began keeping records in 1976.
Peralta added what looked to be an insurance goal in the 75th minute, heading in a free kick from Marco Fabian. But that proved to be the game-winner when Hulk gave Brazil its only goal a minute into stoppage time.
“I don’t know if this was the best match of my career, but it is the most important because I am here today with a gold medal,” Peralta said. “I dreamed about this moment. It is one of those things you don’t get to live every day.”
For Brazil, a five-time World Cup champion, the loss was its third in as many Olympic finals.
“Yet again we came close but didn’t quite get it,” Brazilian coach Mano Menezes said. “I’m forced to conclude that we’re missing something in our … structure.”
Tena, meanwhile, dedicated the win to his late father, who he said was “kicking a ball up in heaven.”
“To sing the national anthem with a gold medal around your neck,” he said, “is priceless.”
It’s also an experience that soon may not seem so rare in Mexico.