Play-off matches between teams from different continental zones have become the norm in recent qualifying phases for the finals of the FIFA World Cup™, with hard-fought and high-pressure encounters usually resulting. This is hardly surprising when you consider how close both teams are to the global showpiece at that stage, while a solitary error could condemn them to at least another four years away from world football's top table.
However, these ties were a more infrequent occurrence in the past and, way back in qualifying for Chile 1962, Mexico and Paraguay were paired together in just such an encounter for the first time in either nation's history. Los Guaraníes were considered favourites given their solid performance at Sweden 1958 and their home advantage in the return match, though it was El Tricolor, boasting one of their finest ever sides, who edged clear over the two games to seal a place on Chilean soil.
5 November 1961, Estadio Nacional, Asuncion
México: Antonio Carbajal, Arturo Chaires, Guillermo Sepúlveda,
José Villegas, Salvador Farfán, Pedro Nájera,
Alfredo del Aguila, Salvador Reyes, Carlos Lara, Antonio
Jasso and Guillermo Ortíz - coach: Ignacio Tréllez
Mexico went into the encounter fresh from topping the standings in the North, Central American and Caribbean Zone and a less-than-successful European tour. Indeed, said tour included a 2-1 defeat by the former Czechoslovakia, a 1-1 draw in Norway, a 2-1 win in the Netherlands and a painful 8-0 reverse against England. Paraguay, for their part, had played only friendly encounters against regional opposition prior to the decisive clashes with Los Aztecas.
The first of the play-off meetings took place in Mexico City's Estadio de Ciudad Universitaria, given that the now-legendary Estadio Azteca was still five years away from being officially unveiled. The home side had much the better of proceedings though were only able to record a narrow 1-0 win, the goal coming from Salvador Reyes. It remained an ideal result for Mexico given that back then ties were not settled by aggregate scores or away goals, which left Paraguay needing to win the return by any margin to force a third encounter on neutral territory.
Mexico may have gone into the clash in Asuncion holding a vital one-game lead in the series, but coach Ignacio Trelles and his men were fully aware of just how tough a task awaiting them, thus Trelles' decision to employ a defensive, counter-attacking strategy.
And the tactics worked, with the Paraguayan attacks foundering time and time again on a doughty Mexican defence led by centre-back Guillermo Sepulveda and keeper Antonio Carbajal. Meanwhile at the other end of the field, the pace of Reyes, Alfredo del Aguila and Antonio Jasso threatened to undo the Albirroja defence every time the ball was hit forward.
"It was an incredibly difficult game. The Paraguayans battled with real grit and their fans never tired of getting behind them," said Club America star Jasso, one of the key performers in Mexico's successful qualifying bid. "And it must be said that no antagonistic words or gestures were directed at us, they (the home crowd) were simply eager to support their team. We drew 0-0 and that earned us the right to take part in the World Cup finals."
Guadalajara were the dominant team in Mexican football, with their players forming the bedrock of the national squad. Chivas icon El Tigre Sepulveda was considered the best central defender in the country at the time and it was his performance, along with that of in-form Club Leon custodian and Mexico legend Carbajal, which went a long way to ensuring that crucial clean sheet in Asuncion.
What they said
"The Paraguayan fans appreciated the way the match was played. Though they (Paraguay) had the upper hand, Mexico never stopped trying to break forward and create danger. At the end of the match the crowd acknowledged our efforts and called on us to do two laps of honour." Mexico midfielder Juan Jasso
What happened next?
Morale boosted after their Paraguayan exploits, Mexico put up a brave fight in arguably the most difficult group at Chile 1962. In their first match they went down to a battling 2-0 reverse against Pele and Garrincha's Brazil, the reigning champions and eventual winners. This was followed by a heart-breaking 1-0 loss against a Spain team including Ferenc Puskas, Francisco Gento and Luis Suarez - La Roja's decisive strike coming in the final minute after Mexico had dominated much of the play.
El Tri were able to end their campaign on a high by recording their first ever win at a FIFA World Cup finals, coming through 3-1 victors over a Czechoslovakia team that went on to finish runners-up. And such were their brave displays in Chile that the class of '62 are considered, along with the USA 1994 squad, as Mexico's finest ever sides.
Paraguay, for their part, were back on Mexican territory 27 years later to take part in the 1986 FIFA World Cup while qualification for South Africa 2010 would secure a fourth consecutive finals appearance, having also reached France 1998, Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006.