“Mexico’s a great place for football. Big crowds, amazing atmosphere, and those World Cups [of 1970 and 1986] were so entertaining.”
Those were the words of Brazil coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo as he headed up the Americas for the FIFA Confederations Cup in 1999. They underscored a consensus: that Mexico were enchanting hosts but non-contenders.
El Tri had been beaten 3-1 by then-minnows Australia en route to a first-phase exit at the previous ‘Festival of Champions’, while they had suffered group-stage elimination in seven of the 11 FIFA World Cups™ in which they had participated.
Mexico nevertheless cruised through the comparative picnic that was Group A, with Cuauhtemoc Blanco in irresistible form as they thumped Saudi Arabia 5-1, drew 2-2 with Egypt and edged Bolivia 1-0.
That booked them a semi-final against their arch-rivals which nobody expected to be easy. It wasn’t, but a match in which Mexico goalkeeper Jorge Campos played excellently and his USA counterpart Kasey Keller performed exceptionally ended with Blanco stabbing home the only goal in extra-time.
Awaiting Manuel Lapuente’s men in the final was an implausible challenge. Brazil had won their last five meetings with Mexico, had a teenage Ronaldinho in sizzling form, and had demolished Saudi Arabia 8-2 in the semis.
“My memories of the final in the Azteca are wonderful, because that stadium has an atmosphere all of its own,” Rafael Marquez recalled to FIFA. “The feeling the fans created during that final made for an incredible atmosphere.
“When I think about all the achievements in my career, winning the Confederations Cup, in Mexico, is right up there. Winning it is a major thing for any player. It’s an achievement I’ll never forget.”