Football: World Cup - Mexicans celebrate success

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The Independent Online
MEXICAN religious passions and traditional machismo ran riot on Thursday after Mexico's surprise 2-2 draw against the Netherlands carried the team through to the second round of the World Cup.

Jose Guadalupe Hernandez, the parish priest at Our Lady of Lightning in central Puebla state, said he had prayed to Catholic Mexico's most revered religious figure for help after Mexico conceded two first-half goals. "The first half was very difficult and in the second I asked the Virgin of Guadalupe to come on to help the Mexican side, and we scored," an emotional Hernandez said.

Hernandez installed a television in his church near a statue of baby Jesus dressed for the occasion in the national team's green, white and red colours. The congregation's faith was rewarded by a last-minute equaliser by Luis Hernandez, which propelled Mexico beyond the first round of a World Cup tournament held in Europe for the first time.

Mexico's next match is on June 29 against Germany. President Ernesto Zedillo phoned the coach, Manuel Lapuente, minutes after the final whistle sounded in St Etienne to tell him, "the team had the stature to do greater things".

Thousands of fans poured into Mexico's streets and plazas to celebrate after a game that had virtually paralysed offices and filled bars since the early hours. Celebrations soured, however, in Mexico City's main street, Paseo de la Reforma Avenue, when crowds battled with riot police defending the Angel of Independence monument from a repeat of the damage inflicted during World Cup revelry in 1994 and 1986. Three media photographers were treated for head wounds after they were caught under a hail of missiles thrown by rioters. They were later released from hospitals.

Belgium, facing a barrage of criticism over their below-par World Cup performance and early exit, will be radically overhauled according to their coach, George Leekens. "The team will have to be drastically rejuvenated," he said.

Belgium were knocked out in the first round of their fifth successive World Cup finals after recording three draws against the Netherlands, Mexico and South Korea. "We have to admit that our team is not of the highest quality," said Leekens, whose side for the Mexico match had an average age of 32.

Leekens will now kick off preparations for the 2000 European Championship, which Belgium will host jointly with the Netherlands. "Now we have to start rebuilding the team, a young team plus a few players with a lot of experience," he said.

The Belgium captain, Franky van der Elst, had already announced that, at the age of 37, he was quitting international football and the trio of goalkeepers, with an average of 35, are also due to retire. Lorenzo Staelens and Vital Borkelmans, 35 and 34 respectively, are also likely to be dropped but it was not clear whether Enzo Scifo, a sprightly 32- year-old, had also played his last international game.