MEXICO CITY — The broad success of Latin America's teams at soccer's World Cup has brought many parts of the region a joyful and brief respite from troubles.
Forget about the earthquake that devastated Chile, the drug violence that's racking Mexico or the slow economic rebound in other parts of the hemisphere.
While European teams struggle, six Latin teams are likely to enter the Round of 16 that begins this weekend in South Africa at the World Cup, arguably the world's most popular sporting event, which occurs every four years.
In Mexico City, psychologist Javier Lima stood among a throng that police estimated at more than 80,000 gathered in the main plaza Tuesday to watch on giant screens as the Mexican national team played Uruguay. Mexico lost, but it still squeaked into the next round along with Uruguay.
"You don't see this very often in Mexico," Lima said of the jubilant crowd. "The last time I saw something like this was when the pope came."
Perennial soccer powerhouses Brazil and Argentina have emerged from their preliminary groups to leap into the next round. Chile and Paraguay also are leading their groups. Only Honduras has been forced out.
The success so far of the Latin American teams led Spain's national sports newspaper, Marca, to suggest in a headline Wednesday that the World Cup "seems like the America's Cup."
In Chile, which was hit by a devastating 8.8 magnitude earthquake Feb. 27 that left more than 500 people dead, the triumph of its team has special meaning. Before this year, Chile hadn't won a World Cup match since 1962, when it was the host.
"The earthquake recovery has influenced the mood here, and the good campaign (by the national team) has been an excuse to make people happy," said Gaston Faure, a sports journalist at Radio Cooperativa in Santiago.
The performance of smaller Latin nations also has delighted the region.
"The level of South American soccer makes us all proud," Faure said. "Everybody thought Brazil and Argentina would do well, but not Paraguay and Uruguay."
Uruguay, which hosted and won the World Cup in 1930 and won again in 1950, has been overshadowed in recent decades by Brazil, a five-time winner, and Argentina, which has won twice.
As in most Latin capitals with teams vying in South Africa, Montevideo's streets are deserted when the national team has a World Cup match.
"All the newspapers in the country have dedicated their front pages to the team's games," said Luis Cabrera, a journalist with El Pais, a Montevideo paper.
In Mexico, where drug-related violence has taken some 23,000 lives since late 2006, sales of the red, green and white national jersey have soared.
"There are more Mexican players playing in Europe, and the team has gotten better," said Cesar Aldrete, a clothing distributor, as he watched Mexico play.
Mexico has arrived at five consecutive Round of 16 appearances in the World Cup, usually followed by quick exits. Mexicans pray that this time will be different, but the squad faces an Argentine team led by striker Lionel Messi, the reigning world player of the year, in its next match Sunday.
Being a faithful soccer fan is good politics in much of Latin America, so President Felipe Calderon flew to South Africa for the Mexican team's opening game June 11, receiving brickbats from the opposition in Congress for leaving the country amid a spate of 39 drug-related killings in less than 24 hours.
"Did you notice that the day we played South Africa was one of the most bloody days we have ever had?" asked Carlos Rafael Torres, a computer technician.
Still, Torres acknowledged as he watched a match Tuesday, "it distracts you a bit from the problems."
Torres holds out hope that Mexico can survive the Round of 16 — and he knows which team he'll root against, too. That would be Mexico's neighbor to the north, which slipped into the Round of 16 with a 1-0 win Wednesday over Algeria.
His greatest wish for the next round, Torres said, betraying a Mexican love-hate relationship with its neighbor, is "that the United States doesn't win."
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