Central decline

It's looking grim for Mexico, unitl now perpetual World Cup qualifiers from concacaf. Simeon Tegel looks for clues to the recent failures of the central American giants

If there was ever a country that should have been able to assume automatic qualification for the World Cup, then surely it is Mexico. With a football-obsessed population of 100 million, a league as rich as any in the Americas and a 110,000-capacity home stadium at a height of 2,400 metres, the country seems blessed.

And while Argentina and Brazil have to play each other to get to the World Cup, the obstacles in Mexico’s path never include anything more strenuous than a workaholic but unexciting US and the occasional flash of brilliance from a solitary star playing in one of Central America’s middling sides.

Yet just three years after one of the best ever World Cup performances by the “Tri”, as Mexico’s national side is known, and two years after a well-earned 4-3 victory over Brazil in the final of the Confederations Cup, Mexico appear doomed to miss out on the trip to Japan and South Korea next year.

After six games of the final round of Concacaf qualifiers, Mexico are fifth of six, with just seven points. Only the top three qualify and with the US and Costa Rica five points clear at the top, Mexico seem to be grappling for the last spot with Honduras and Jamaica, both a point ahead of them.

The final straw for Tri coach Enrique Meza, who had taken over just nine months earlier, came on June 20 with a humiliating 3-1 away defeat to Honduras. La Prensa, Mexico’s best-selling newspaper, splashed on its back-page the insulting but concise Dwarves. In­side, the paper’s reporters fumed about the “Tri­tanic”. The quiet and courteous Meza was only spared be­cause he had already resigned, tearfully, just minutes after the final whistle. “I only hope it’s not too late,” he told reporters.

Playing in a 3-5-2 formation popular in domestic Mexican soccer, the Tri appeared totally unable to counter Honduras’ lightning attacks, led by hat-trick scorer Carlos Pavón, who plays his club football in Mexico with Atlético Morelia, and David Suazo, last season’s revelation at Serie B’s Cagliari. Veteran cen­tre-back and Mexico captain Claudio Suárez, with more than 150 caps to his name, was clearly out of his depth against their pace.

That Meza was still in charge for the Honduras game is a tribute to the loyalty of the Mexican federation, anxious, perhaps, not to be seen as too trigger-happy following last autumn’s abrupt termination of Manuel Lapuente’s turbulent but successful reign. Unlike Lapuente, Meza had been prepared to com­promise with the top clubs and thus have many of his players available only 48 hours or less before matches.

While losing in Honduras was an undeniable low point, it still did not compare with the Tri’s first ever defeat at the Aztec Stadium in a World Cup qualifier, four days earlier, to Costa Rica. Two weeks before that, Mexico lost all three games during their pitiful defence of the Confederations Cup. England’s 4-0 triumph at Pride Park suddenly seemed a lot less impressive.

The 2-1 defeat to Costa Rica was almost predictable following a week in which the Mexican players, morale on the floor, pleaded with the home supporters not to turn up at the Aztec Stadium unless they would sup­port the team. Costa Rican forward Hernán Medford, a ten-year veteran of the Mexican top flight, was more than happy to prey on the home players’ fears, irritating several by proclaiming the Tri “does not scare anyone any more”. By scoring the winner in the 86th minute, Medford saved himself some embarrassment but heaped even more on the Mexicans. The 3,000 jubilant Costa Rica fans easily out-shouted the 30,000-odd dispirited home supporters throughout the 90 minutes.

According to Luis Homero Echeverría, football writer at Reforma, Mexico’s leading broadsheet, Me­za’s failure has been one of communication. “He was either not explaining what he wanted from the players, or they were not listening,” Echeverría said. “Meza is a calm man, passive even. He probably need­ed to be more of a dictator, like Lapuente.”

Before taking over the Tri, Meza had been the most successful domestic manager of the late 1990s, taking over the rudderless Mexico City satellite club of Toluca in 1998 and leading them to win three of Mexico’s twice-yearly championships. “His patriarchal style worked well in the small family at Toluca but he does not appear to have been able to build up the same atmosphere with the national team,” said Echeverría.

In fairness, Meza also suffered from the absence of key players. The bunny-hopping forward Cuauhtémoc Blanco has been in­jured all season, while the mercurial Jesus Arellano, who mesmerised the last World Cup as he zig-zagged across the pitch with the ball apparently glued to his feet while pointing out runs to his less visionary team-mates, has found one excuse after another not to play for Meza. Arellano’s explanation for failing to catch the flight to England, only offered after the Tri had already taken off, was that he was having a dental operation. Nevertheless, critics claimed Meza also failed to pick his best players. Antonio de Nigris, the lanky, long-haired centre for­ward who looked dangerous against England the few times he got the ball, was not even in the squad to face Costa Rica and Honduras, to the bafflement of many.

Meza’s failures should also be seen in the context of historic Mexican under-achievement. While Argen­­­­tina, Brazil and Uruguay have won eight World Cups between them, Mexico have merely hosted the tour­nament twice. Theories abound for the Tri’s failure to live up to its potential, ranging from the very lack of serious regional competitors at both club and national level, to the altitude of Mexico’s central high­lands, preventing the development of an up-tempo style.

The refusal of most pampered and overpaid Mex­ican stars – some earning more than US$2 million a year – to cross the Atlantic has also limited their technical development. Of Mexico’s current internationals, only the injured Blanco at Real Valladolid, the highly rated defender Rafa Marquez at Monaco and the young midfielder Gerardo Torrado at Tenerife, play in Eur­ope. “The Mexican is very rooted to his customs, his friends and family, even to his food,” said Echeverría. “It is harming the Tri.”

The irony is that the Tri’s wretched form comes at the same time as Mexico City’s Cruz Azul made history by becoming the first Mexican side to reach the final of the Copa Libertadores. Invited into the South American competition for the first time three years ago, Mexican clubs have been making progress ever since. Cruz Azul, who lost the final on penalties after drawing with Boca Juniors 1-1 on aggregate, have many foreign stars, but the core of the team is local.

One day after Meza’s resignation, Javier Aguirre, a former midfielder with 86 caps whose short managing career includes leading the country’s oldest club, Pachuca, to its first ever title, was handed the job of salvaging the qualification campaign. He suc­ces­sfully negotiated his first game, beating lacklustre group leaders the US 1-0 in front of a sold-out Aztec Stadium on July 1. For the first time in months, Mexico looked well organised and confident as Arellano and several others returned to the side. Goalkeeper Jorge Campos and his lurid jersey were also dropped in favour of the more reliable Oscar Perez, from Cruz Azul.

Before the US game, Aguirre had ap­peared relaxed as he proclaimed: “I am well aware that this job can take you to the heights, or destroy you.” Aguirre now has four World Cup qualifiers left to find out which it is to be. 

From WSC 174 August 2001. What was happening this month