MEXICO CITY, June 24 (Reuters) - Mexicans cried on Saturday after exiting the World Cup with a 2-1 loss to Argentina but took heart from a display that forced one of the tournament favourites to struggle into extra time.
Mexican police unclipped handguns to control dozens of angry local fans who chased down a car load of Argentines celebrating in a drive around the capital. No shots were fired and the local supporters retreated.
Screams rang out in homes and cantinas across the country with Mexico's every attacking move, but they were silenced by a spectacular extra time goal from Argentina's Maxi Rodriguez and the tears began to flow.
'We did not deserve to lose and we were not the favourites, but we gave Argentina the fright of their lives,' said Martina Vega, a 21-year student, rubbing her tear-streaked face painted with the colours of the Mexican flag.
At one cantina in Mexico City dozens of stricken fans wiped blurry eyes, although for others the defeat was relief from the soccer frenzy that has taken over the nation.
'I'm eight months pregnant and this sort of nerves might force me to rush to the hospital so to be honest I'm half glad we are out and I can go home and do breathing exercises,' said Maria Martinez, 29, a nurse.
Mexico has taken part in 13 World Cup finals and is one of the tournament's perpetual under-achievers. Its best performances came in 1970 and 1986, when they made it to the quarter-finals.
Wild celebrations by whole families crammed into bars in Mexico City erupted after a sixth minute goal by captain Rafael Marquez. Argentina equalised minutes later but Mexican hopes were kept alive by one of the team's best performances in years.
A left foot volleyed goal from Rodriguez eight minutes into extra time finally broke the tie and Mexicans had their heads in their hands, certain their team was on its way home early again.
Argentina go through to the quarter-finals to play hosts Germany on Friday.
'We played a good game against a team that everyone thought was going to steamroll over us,' said captain Marquez. 'But we played even better than them and we did not deserve this. A great goal eliminated us.'
Other Mexicans said the country should now concentrate more on electing a new president next weekend instead of sport.
'This soccer tournament has distracted the country from the more important task of choosing between the left, the right and the old Mexico next Sunday,' said 66-year-old newspaper seller Marco Riquelme.
'Winning the World Cup is not crucial for the future of the country. Choosing who runs it is,' said Riquelme.
Mexico's July 2 election is a very tight race, with leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador slightly ahead of right-wing rival Felipe Calderon in opinion polls.
In third place is Roberto Madrazo, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ran Mexico for 71 years before current President Vicente Fox ousted the party in 2000.
Fox watched the game in his rural ranch and criticised Swiss referee Massimo Busacca for bias but said he was proud of the team. 'Mexico dominated all the time, the defeat was circumstantial. Mexico was always ahead and deserved victory.'
Calderon, a soccer fan and personal friend of World Cup striker Jose Fonseca, could have received a boost in the election if Mexico had beaten Argentina, especially as Lopez Obrador prefers baseball.