Flu brings Mexican sports to a stop

MEXICO CITY -- Already used to dismissing hardship by joking about difficult times and drowning their sorrows in the noise of crowded soccer stadiums, Mexicans now find themselves in the midst of a health emergency that has closed every stadium and shut down dozens of sporting and cultural events because of swine flu. By Friday, the disease had claimed 15 lives and had 343 confirmed cases, aside from 150 deaths that are suspected to have been caused by the same virus.

In only 30 days, the disease went from a mere flu outbreak to a pandemic, and Mexican sports, as well as many other activities, have suffered the consequences. The most recent one was the qualification of Chivas and San Luis in the round before the quarterfinals of the Copa Santander Libertadores. Come Friday, they did not have a place to play their home games.

On Thursday, the Mexican Soccer Federation (FMF) and the South American Soccer Confederation (CONMEBOL) announced that both Chivas of Guadalajara and San Luis would play in Bogota, Colombia. But a couple of hours later, the Bogota government denied that possibility.

"It is a decision made following the advice of the WHO [World Health Organization]. We have a human pandemic in Phase 5, and the WHO is very strict in these situations. We cannot have events of more than 40 people in a country that tested positive with the virus A H1N1," said the undersecretary of health of Bogota, Juan Varela.

Under the circumstances, CONMEBOL and FMF are in search of other options. On Friday some were saying Chile was one possible destination for the Mexican teams.

CONMEBOL had shown its preoccupation after San Luis qualified for the round of 16, and asked the Mexican authorities to grant some type of guarantees to those South American teams traveling to Mexico.

"This presidency sees with particular concern the spread of this epidemic outbreak," said Nicolas Leoz, president of CONMEBOL.

To the FMF, it would be impossible to guarantee a degree of safety that the Mexican state has not been able to offer its citizens. In order to avoid the retirement of those two Mexican teams from the tournament, Leoz agreed to have those games played in Colombia.

Even so, playing abroad does not guarantee tranquility. Chivas, which played in Chile on Wednesday in a game that ended in a tie against Everton in Vina del Mar, first had to endure the attacks of the Chilean fans.

"They made us feel bad because when we left [Vina del Mar]; everyone there covered their mouths as we passed," midfielder Gonzalo Pineda told the Spanish news agency EFE.

Chivas coach Francisco Ramirez was also the victim of an attack.

"At the end, one can find this type of hostility everywhere, which is not really pleasant," he said. "The fans covered their mouths, just as everyone in Mexico has done it to protect themselves from contagion."

San Luis, which played in Paraguay on Tuesday, had problems returning to Mexico. So did Chivas, which had a stopover planned in Peru, but the Peruvian government canceled all flights to and from Mexico. The Sacred Herd had to wait for a direct flight. Right now, there is no information on travel arrangements for San Luis and Chivas into Bogota.

Behind closed doors

The situation on the Libertadores Cup has been a mere reflection of the tribulations endured by the Mexican Clausura tournament, which had three of its games played behind closed doors last week, and in the 16th week will have its nine games played in empty stadiums. This decision was mirrored in all divisions and categories of Mexican soccer.

"It's a good response in a state of crisis," said Leonardo Toscano, an art director for an advertising agency in the upscale Las Lomas neighborhood, to ESPNdeportes.com. "But the fun of it is lost; the whole thing lacks emotional value."

Toscano explained that they are still working but without turning the air conditioner on, in order to avoid the spread of the virus.

Gathering thousands of fans in the stadiums would have been a sure way to spread the virus, which has been stopped only by the widespread use of surgical masks seen in the semi-deserted city streets. The closing of schools, movie theaters, restaurants, bars and other meeting places has added even more drama to the situation.

"The idea is, as it was announced by the health authorities, to avoid the crowds, and in a soccer game you never know what's going to happen," America team physician Alfonso Diaz told the media.

One by one, the Class A teams were accepting the measures that even in the 15th week were tough to take, especially by those teams that saw their box-office revenues depleted.

"The truth is that we miss the fans terribly, but they were absent for their own good. I hope they come back to the stadium soon," Pumas coach Ricardo Ferretti said after his team tied with Chivas.

According to the all-sports newspaper Record, the losses for the first three games behind closed doors are well over $1 million for Pachuca, Pumas and America alone. The 16th week, according to some estimates, will see losses estimated at $3 million, and that's aside from the greater impact of the loss of the economic activity that surrounds soccer.

To some fans, playing in empty stadiums is not the solution.

"It is a distraction. Nothing would happen if the tournament is suspended for two or three weeks, but they do it like this because of their current advertising schedule. It is a bad strategy that affects the quality of the game as well as the economic aspects of it," Jose Manuel Chantiri, a lawyer in the Mexican capital, told ESPNdeportes.com.

In addition to playing without an audience, almost every club has decided to practice behind closed doors, in some cases denying access to the press. In other cases, interviews are allowed, but only in open areas and with face masks.

Practice restrictions aside, players admit that the decisions have been correct.

"It is a regrettable fact, but it is a necessary health measure, and as such, we must respect it. It is for the greater good, and that's what matters most," said Israel Lopez, a midfielder for Toluc.

Meanwhile, other teams such as Pachuca have suspended all their activities, and only their starters are mandated to train -- and only under the custody of a group of specialized physicians.

"The truth is that we're very worried and at the same time a little bit nervous. As the days go by, the degree of alarm has risen and things have become more complicated," said Colombian player Miguel Calero to the press of his country. "We know that all teams lose financially, but our health is above all that. What matters most is that we don't have reasons for regret."

These precautions were observed during the week in the training camp of the Mexican national team, where face masks were handed out to all media covering the event. That day, frightening seismic activity added even more despair and panic to the city.

Beyond soccer

The delays and cancellations of sporting events in Mexico have come in throes after that. The pre-Olympic U-17 tournament scheduled to be played in Tijuana, on the northern border, was canceled before its semifinal leg.

CONCACAF, organizer of the tournament, also suspended a regional beach soccer tournament in Puerto Vallarta and postponed until May 12 the final game of the CONCACAF's Champions league between Atlante and Cruz Azul, scheduled to be played in Cancun.

But soccer is not the only sport whose scheduling has been disrupted. The Mexican baseball league played its series behind closed doors this week, too, and the measure may extend several more weeks.

On Wednesday, the Canadian Tour of professional golf canceled its tournament in the Mexican city of San Luis Potosi and postponed the ones scheduled in Merida and Riviera Maya, all of them scheduled for May.

The international A1-GP car racing event, scheduled for late May in the Mexican capital, was canceled at the last minute. And the local NASCAR franchise postponed its race at San Luis Potosí indefinitely.

Amateur sports have been affected as well. The World Diving Championship, scheduled in the southeastern city of Chiapas, was canceled. The FINA World Championship Series was held in Mexico City a week earlier, but without a live audience.

The state's National Commission for Sports has also been forced to cancel its youth competitions, which would have gathered more than 13,000 young people from all over the country. And they are currently evaluating closing every training camp in the country.

Meanwhile, Mexico City's horse track canceled its entire schedule for the upcoming weeks. It will not open again until the authorities declare the end of the health emergency.

The flu scare has all Mexicans glued to their TV sets and radios while the networks struggle to find content aimed at children, the group that has been most affected by the forced lock-in.

"No question, we'll watch soccer on TV," said Oscar Mario Bejarano, a telecommunications executive in a luxurious shopping mall south of the city, where the clientele is scarce and the shops look empty in spite of the celebration of Children's Day on Thursday and the upcoming Mother's Day.