Just under two years ago El Tri looked to be gelling into a formidable force ahead of the 2014 World Cup. The previous year, José Manuel de la Torre’s men had come from 2-0 down against the USA to capture a second successive CONCACAF Gold Cup in a thrilling final in Los Angeles. Mexico then breezed through the third round of the Confederation qualifiers, winning all six games against Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guyana, and in August of that year, the country experienced the most glorious day in its footballing history when it won the men’s football tournament at the London Olympics, under the guidance of de la Torre’s assistant, Luis Fernando Tena.
The wheels began to come off in a somewhat alarming way in early 2013. Mexico conceded scoreless draws at home to Jamaica and the USA and threw away a two-goal lead against Honduras in Tegucigalpa to draw 2-2. They dropped four more points from the next three games before heading off to Brazil for the Confederations Cup but with three automatic qualifying spots plus one play-off places up for grabs, there was a sense that things would fall into place in the end. De la Torre’s men were knocked out in Brazil after two creditable defeats to the hosts and Italy. More worryingly, they surrendered their Gold Cup crown, succumbing to two defeats against little Panama, the second in the semi-final. They would have to wait till September however to assess the scale of the disaster they had slowly been sinking into. On the sixth of that month, Honduras came to the Azteca Stadium and soon went 1-0 down to an early goal by Olympic hero Oribe Peralta. In the space of five second-half minutes though, the Hondurans turned the game around with goals by Jerry Bengtson and Carlo Costly, the very same pair who had clawed back the deficit in the earlier game. Mexico had no reply and suffered only their second ever home defeat in a World Cup qualifier. The fans and media were in uproar but de la Torre, whose position had until then looked unassailable, had a Jim Callaghan moment and declared his development of the national team to be going well. He was sacked the next day. A 2-0 defeat away to the USA promptly followed and things were looking dire. There was a serious danger of the country missing its first World Cup since a FIFA ban sidelined them from Italia 90.
Raúl Jiminez’s late winner against Panama at home settled the nerves but Mexico, now under the charge of former Monterrey coach Víctor Manuel Vucetitch, still needed a draw away to Costa Rica to make the play-offs. They were played off the park in San José and a 2-0 defeat left them all but out as news came in that Panama were leading the USA 2-1 with injury time approaching. Mexico got an unlikely helping hand from their northern neighbours though as the USA scored twice in quick succession to win 3-2 a match they could afford to lose. Mexico were in the play-offs but Vucetitch was out of a job.
Miguel Herrera, fresh from winning the Clausura with América, took over for a mismatched play-off with New Zealand, which El Tri won at a canter, 9-2 on aggregate. They could thank their lucky stars that FIFA had decided CONCACAF and CONMEBOL play-off teams would be kept apart (unlike four years ago) and would instead get more manageable opposition (presumably to ensure as many participants from the Americas as possible for the first Latin American World Cup since 1986). Now that Mexico are there, what are their chances?
The draw was favourable enough –– they are unlikely to trouble hosts Brazil much but they should be capable of fighting for second spot with Croatia, who experienced a similar collapse last year, and Cameroon, prone to misfire so often at this stage. Herrera named his 23-man squad early. Much of it was as expected –– eight of the Olympic gold medal team are there –– but there were a few surprises. Veteran former captain Rafa Márquez, now back home playing for Léon, was called up at the age of 36, suggesting that Herrera sees leadership outweighing physical freshness as a priority. Former Fulham left-back Carlos Salcido, so brilliant in South Africa four years ago and an overage member of the victorious Olympic side, was included despite being ignored by Herrera until now. Villarreal’s Javier Aquino was the one big name left out, presumably because of his mediocre strike rate –– one goal all told last season.
Mexico, as ever, have some superb natural talent but, the New Zealand games aside, they have also been struggling to score goals of late. Against Brazil they are likely to line out 4-2-3-1, with Javier Hernández up front and it’s hard to see where a goal is going to come from in that match. Chicharito will probably be paired with either Jiminez or Peralta in the other games but, Mexico being a team whose performance is always closely tied to confidence, they look like they will struggle in midfield against Luka Módrić and Ivan Rakitić in the Croatia game. Marcos Fabián’s belated introduction to the national side after a six-month suspension was one of the few bright sparks of 2013 but, paired alongside the perennially underachieving Giovanni dos Santos, he may not be the man for the job.
Key to getting out of the group will be a sharp start against Cameroon in the first game in Natal on June 13th. Mexico have not always been the fastest out of the blocks though. Anything less than a win will leave them under a lot of pressure in the following two games against Brazil and Croatia. With few of his overseas players dazzling last season, the best Herrera can hope for is that a string of good performances in warm-up games might reacquaint his men with self-belief and the habit of winning.
Posted by Oliver Farry