Tuesday, 22 June 2010

32 For 2010: Mexico

For a country so obsessed with football and having played it so long, it’s a mystery that Mexico is yet to make a bigger impact on the World Cup. The current team boast many a technically gifted player and are led by a much respected coach, but expectations thus far have been no higher than for previous campaigns.

Quarter-finalists in 1970 and 1986 (both times on home soil), Mexico really ought to have done better by now. The fact that they have the chance to do so in 2010 is not only a boon but also rather miraculous.

Rewind a year or more and you’ll have found El Tri floundering in fifth place in the ‘hexagonal’ final round of CONCACAF’s qualifying competition. Sven Goran Eriksson had been drafted in as a coach with much international experience, but his lack of appreciation for the Mexican footballing way quickly showed its limitations.

Eriksson made way for former player Javier Aguirre and with the clock ticking, he turned the fortunes of his charges around to the point where they finished second in the six-team group. Mexico had booked their ticket for South Africa, but only just.

And at time of publication, they’ve managed to replicate their old trick of reaching the first knockout round too. They’ve got this far at the last four World Cups, but sadly no further. This, for the Mexicans, is the first priority, but in this World Cup the prospects are stacked considerably in their favour. If they’re to reach the quarter finals in 2010, they’ll have to beat Argentina in Round 2. It’s possible Javier Aguirre’s men could produce an upset (and heaven knows we’ve already had a few of those), but few would actually bet on such an outcome.

The reason an upset can’t be completely written off is largely down to their appealing brand of possession football. The players are obviously very comfortable on the ball and are patient in piecing together each attack, yet they can work the flanks with speed and have a defence that’s difficult to breach too.

Many of the principles adopted by the current team have been brought through from the Mexican side that won the World Under-17 World Cup in 2005. Among that squad were some of the players – familiar names now – that make up Aguirre’s 23 in South Africa, including Efrain Juarez, Hector Moreno (of Dutch side AZ) and Arsenal’s Carlos Vela.

But there’s more quality at hand than that. Manchester United’s new signing from Guadalajara, Javier Hernandez, has already shown the sort of form that could make him a fan’s favourite. His goal was the first of two for Mexico in their group game against France and it may not be his last in this contest.

Elsewhere, Gerardo Torrado provides reliability in midfield, captain Rafael Marquez marshals the defence – a quality that’s made him a regular for Barcelona – and as any Tottenham fan will tell you, Giovani Dos Santos is a nippy winger who, can prize opening the opposition on the break.

Javier Aguirre is more than well aware that his squad is largely polarised between the two age extremes and if anything the Mexicans could do with some decent players that fall somewhere between the two. That, coupled with the fact that Mexico don’t get the chance to test themselves often enough against top opposition, could be a sign of weakness, but the spirit is strong and the support will be even stronger.

Mexico will be tested to the very limit if they’re to do well in South Africa, but they’ve already beaten France, so why not Argentina? This Sunday’s second round tie will tell us if it’s really possible.

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