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Passion replaces scandal as U.S. meet Mexico

By Simon Evans

PASADENA, California (Reuters) - Saturday's CONCACAF Gold Cup final is exactly the showdown the tournament's troubled organizers desperately wanted: Mexico, the best supported soccer team in the region, against the host-nation, the United States.

Around 90,000 fans, mostly in Mexico's green shirts, will pack into the Rose Bowl to watch events unfold while the match will almost certainly draw a tournament record television audience, thanks largely to Spanish language coverage in North America.

On the field, the third consecutive Gold Cup final between the two regional powerhouses, has an extra edge with the United States looking to equal Mexico's record of five championships.

Bob Bradley's team also want to avenge their loss in the final two years ago when a weakened U.S. side was humiliated 5-0 at the old Giants Stadium in New Jersey.

Five of their players were suspended for failing doping tests, which they have disputed, but the team has managed to overcome the distractions and produce some flowing, attacking football in which they have banged in 18 goals in five games, seven from Manchester United striker Javier Hernandez.

CONCACAF will just be relieved, that after weeks of internal wrangling and public disputes following the corruption allegations against their former president Jack Warner, they have been able to put on a tournament which has captured the imagination of the sporting public.

Warner, in charge of the organization for almost 30 years, quit last week but the investigations into bribery charges involving some of CONCACAF's Caribbean member associations has continued while the organization has been running a 12-team tournament and 13 venues across the States.

"This tournament will set attendance records and my guess is there will also be television records, the event has been a huge success," Sunil Gulati, U.S. Soccer president and CONCACAF executive committee member, told Reuters.

"All of the other things that have happened in the political world or the administrative board-rooms, we have got to get straightened out and I think we will over time. It has been a crazy few weeks but in the end this is what it is all about, a full stadium, two good teams and passionate fans."

The Gold Cup is formally known as the continental championship for North and Central America and the Caribbean but for the thousands of Hispanic fans who have filled up NFL stadiums in venues in Dallas, Houston and New Jersey, it is a bi-annual festival of Latin football.

While the contest between the two teams has grown in intensity on the field, in the stands the complexities of identity in modern America ensure that the rivalry remains one that is moderated by respect.

For U.S. striker Clint Dempsey, who grew up playing with mainly Mexican players in Texan youth soccer, the applause contained several meanings.

"I like to think it is two things, a sign of respect that the game is developing more and more in the States, and we are playing a better style of football," he told reporters.

"And two, I'd like to think that a lot of people that were in the stands that were wearing green jerseys are making their living here and (are) being able to have an appreciation, a little bit more, for this country."

(Editing by Julian Linden)

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