Mexico have one of the most consistent records of any nation in recent World Cups, yet for a huge soccer-fanatic country it is one of immense frustration that continues to hang round the necks of the current coach as players as they prepare for Brazil.
In the last five World Cups, dating back to 1994, Mexico have qualified and made it out of the initial group stage on each occasion. It is a feat only matched by the powerhouses of Brazil and Germany. Yet once there, Mexico has encountered what has so far been the most impenetrable of glass ceilings, as they have time and again fallen short of taking their place among the world’s elite final eight. In that time, plenty of smaller or less soccer-centric nations like Bulgaria, South Korea, Turkey, Senegal and, most frustratingly, Mexico’s arch rival the United States have all gone further.
Nothing less than matching those accomplishments in Brazil will be accepted by a demanding Mexican public and media. It has become an obsession.
If the team is to achieve that goal, it will have been done the hard way. When the final round of qualifying in CONCACAF, between the six remaining teams in North, Central America and the Caribbean, began last February, it was expected to be little more than a procession for Mexico. Not only were Mexico seen as the top dogs in their region, but as dark horses to cause a real stir when they reached the World Cup.
Such expectations were not without foundation. In 2011 Mexico’s senior side had brilliantly brushed aside the U.S. in the final of the region’s most prestigious competition, the Gold Cup, before their under-17s came home with the World Cup for their age group. Their underage success continued the following year at the prestigious under-20 Toulon Tournament. Then at the Olympics in London, the Mexico team, in a competition with teams comprised largely of under-23 players, delivered its country a gold medal, beating a Brazil side featuring now global star Neymar in the final. With players such as Manchester United striker Javier Hernandez already in the senior setup, talk of a “golden generation” of talent was rife.
Mexico had breezed through the preliminary group of World Cup qualifying by winning all six games by a combined score of 15-2. Then everything, suddenly, went wrong. In its first game of the Hexagonal, Mexico trudged to a listless goalless draw at home to the weakest team of the remaining six, Jamaica. The steep ranks of fans in the high altitude at the famous Estadio Azteca, where Mexico had failed to win only three of its previous 40 World Cup qualifiers, were booing the players off by half-time. Things did not get any better.
Under the stifling conservatism of coach Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre, Mexico drew its next two at home before, for only the second time ever in qualifying, being beaten in the Azteca, courtesy of Honduras. That proved the end for De la Torre, and his short-term replacement Luis Fernando Tena lasted just the one game, a 2-0 loss to their old rivals in Columbus.
Under latest incumbent, Victor Manuel Vucetich, it took an extraordinary series of events to ensure Mexico merely remained in contention to reach the World Cup through the most unglorified of back doors. A late wonder goal by young striker Raul Jimenez gave Mexico the win it required in their penultimate game against Panama. Then, having blown the chance to secure a playoff berth by its own hand, it took a last-gasp equalizer from American Graham Zusi in Panama to leave Mexico ignominiously but relievedly indebted to its foes to the north.
Again, a head coaching change was forthcoming. And in a playoff against minnows New Zealand, Mexico, now under Miguel Herrera, finally delivered on expectations with a comfortable two-legged victory with a team featuring a squad absent of the big names playing their trade in Europe. Finally its tickets to Brazil had been booked, but there was huge work to be done and with a new coach having just six months to implement his philosophy and get the best out of a tarnished but still talented group of players.
It is perhaps little surprise that less than week until Mexico kicks off its World Cup campaign against Cameroon, the names of several players on the team sheet remained undecided. The naming of a lineup for its final pre-World Cup friendly against Portugal, which Herrera previously suggested would match that which will start in Natal, features 11 names that have never previously played together.
Herrera’s ideas, too, are markedly different to his predecessors. Formerly in charge of one of Mexico’s most successful clubs, Club America, the once Mexican national team defender favors a formation featuring three central defenders that is now employed sparingly by top level teams across the globe. Herrera’s version is all about getting players forward in numbers at high tempo. It is a style that had immediate positive results and breathed fresh life into a team that had become so lackluster and uninspiring to its public.
Still, problems remain. Once the face of the team, Hernandez’s struggles to earn playing time at Manchester United has infected his confidence for his county and he now looks likely to spend more time on the bench than on the pitch in Brazil. Arguably Mexico’s most talented forward, Carlos Vela, will not even be at the World Cup, having elected to continue his self-imposed international exile. And the man who initially injected some much-needed dynamism into the team last fall, Carlos Pena, has now hit a poor run of form at the worst time.
Ahead of trying to first negotiate a group that also includes holders and favorites Brazil and a technically gifted Croatia squad, the team has not yet achieved the key balance between the proactive play Herrera desires and keeping things tight without the ball. In its previous World cup warm up match against Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mexico were badly overrun and could have easily lost by more than the final 1-0 score line. Such was the team’s struggles that Herrera switched to a more traditional 4-4-2 formation early on -- not the best sign so close to the World Cup. A major problem has been in midfield, where the team lacks a commanding presence after an injury to Juan Carlos Medina. A serious injury to another midfielder, Luis Montes, has further disturbed Mexico’s buildup.
Leaving exposed a defense that will contain 35-year-old Rafa Marquez and is likely to feature fellow slowing veteran Francisco Rodriguez would not be wise. Herrera’s biggest decision, and arguably boldest gamble, has been to bring back Marquez, whose international career had appeared over as he played out an unsuccessful stint with the New York Red Bulls. Instead, back playing in his home country, the former Barcelona star has not only returned to the fold, but done so as captain and as the only player guaranteed a starting spot at the World Cup. It is easy to see why, with Marquez bringing much-needed leadership to what was previously a team lacking mental fortitude. Additionally, his range of passing remains undiminished and is perhaps Mexico’s best creative weapon. Yet, at the same time his aging legs make him the team’s biggest vulnerability.
There also remains the question of his temperament. Marquez, who understands Mexico’s frustration better than anyone having played in the last four World Cups, is perhaps still most famous in the U.S. for what can only be described as an assault on American midfielder Cobi Jones as Mexico crashed out at the last-16 stage in disgrace in 2002.
Now 12 years later, Mexico’s chances of finally getting back to the last eight for the first time since they last hosted the competition in 1986 are likely to rest heavily on the ability of Marquez to keep his head and his teammates to provide him the protection he requires.
It is expected to be an arduous task to get out of Group A, let alone advance to the quarters. Brazil enter the tournament as a prohibitive favorite. Croatia, which went to the semifinals in 1998, have a strong squad that features Luka Modric of Real Madrid and Mario Mandzukic of Bayern Munich. Cameroon is not a walkover, either.
Should Mexico advance out of Group A, their opponent could very well be Spain or the Netherlands, the finalists from World Cup 2010.