WESTBROOK – Before patrons slide onto the stools at Fajita Grill, bartender Luis Sanchez has the televisions to himself. He sets the channels, leans back, and watches as artistes pass the ball to their Mexican football league teammates.

Soon, he works the beer taps and mixes margaritas. Soon, he hears the inevitable cry: hey, can you switch to the Red Sox? Sometimes the request is to watch the Celtics. The pleas remind Sanchez he is far from his home near the city of Guadalajara. He has felt the passion of Red Sox fans and knows it is not the same as his own love for the Mexican national football team.

Football, or soccer as Americans call it, is life. The 2010 World Cup begins Friday with opening ceremonies and the first game. Mexico plays host South Africa. With the time difference, the game will be televised in the United States at 9:30 in the morning.

Sanchez doesn’t know who or how many will sit at the bar to watch. The staff are natives of Mexico but so many of the restaurant’s customers are not. The Fajita Grill was not open in 2006, the last time the World Cup was played.

“We will see,” said Sanchez, who was joined Saturday afternoon by Carlos Sanchez, no relation, a server who is from Guanajuato, about 230 miles northwest of Mexico City. “In my country, the streets will be deserted and no cars will move for the hours the game is played.

“When we win, you will not hear such noise before.”

Both men played soccer as boys, much as most Americans played Little League and most Canadians played hockey.

Luis was a midfielder. “Left or right, my job was to push the ball to my teammate so he could score.”

Luis is 37 and by the look on his face you sensed the extreme satisfaction that came from getting an assist.

Carlos is 18, played forward and experienced the thrill of scoring a goal.

“Nothing,” he said with some seriousness, “is like the feeling when the ball goes into the net.”

They wonder if Americans can understand the patience and perseverance that accompany the game.

Gringos are so caught up in home runs, quick 60-yard touchdown strikes and the swish of 3-point shots.

“Teamwork,” said Carlos, describing Mexico’s strength in this World Cup.

“They work, work, work until they score.”

Ask if they are confident their team will win and win again and both men give guarded answers. South Africa has two or three good players, says Luis. They will have the huge crowd behind them after all the pageantry and chest-beating of opening day. Emotions alone might account for one South African goal.

Luis and Carlos had none of the bravado shown by post-2004 Red Sox fans. They are hopeful. They know their history. Mexico has not reached the quarterfinals in any World Cup held outside their own country.

Mexico lost to Argentina in 2006 and to the United States four years before that in what was an upset.

This year, the selection of the national team became soap opera stuff. Some wondered if star midfielder Giovani dos Santos might leave the team after his younger brother, Jonathan, was overlooked. Their father suggested that Jonathan would never play for Mexico.

Giovani remained with the team and dad backed off his comments.

Then came news that the father of Javier “Chicarito” Hernandez quit his job as manager of the Chivas reserve team. Chivas, the New York Yankees of Mexican football and based in Guadalajara, wouldn’t give Hernandez time off to travel to South Africa to watch his son. He quit and heard a nation’s applause.

So, so personal, which is what Luis and Carlos were trying to explain.

With so much passion and pride involved, you wonder if any could be switched to another national team if Mexico falters. The men nodded, reluctantly. Luis would cheer for Brazil, Carlos would back Argentina.

But not the United States?

“Of course,” said Carlos. He didn’t say another word. Better left unsaid was the fact that the unheralded U.S. team would have to advance further in the competition.

It all begins Friday. Luis, Carlos and the rest of the Fajita Grill staff will be watching over the next few weeks as they serve their customers. Someone may very well ask to watch the Red Sox and Luis will probably oblige.

Too bad.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

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