A committed player with an exquisite left foot, Alberto Garcia Aspe is a symbolic figure in Mexican football. Fourteen years an international, he made 109 appearances for his country, scoring 21 goals and appearing in three FIFA World Cups™. Now a television analyst with a reputation for speaking his mind, the former midfielder spoke to FIFA.com about his playing days, hopes for El Tri and current job.
"I made my international debut in 1988," he began, recalling his early days as a Mexico player. "I almost made the squad for the 1986 World Cup but Bora Milutinovic decided not to pick me. We couldn't qualify for Italy 1990, though, as Mexico had been suspended for a problem involving over-age players."
His frustrating wait for an appearance on the world's biggest stage came to an end at USA 1994, although Mexico's progress to the finals was far from smooth. "We started the qualifying competition with a defeat in El Salvador," he explained. "It was a really tough game and quite a few team-mates, including Francisco Uribe and Benjamin Galindo, suffered serious injuries. Losing that match made us much stronger as a unit, though, and we didn't lose after that."
Even so, Mexico's qualification travails were still not over. "The match against Honduras was even worse if anything," said Garcia Aspe. "It was a battle from start to finish and we even had to change hotel before the game. We won 4-1 and we had to wait four hours to get out of the stadium.
"That win gave us the key to the World Cup finals and we then went on and finished Copa America runners-up for the very first time, which earned Mexican football new-found respect around the world. For me it was the best side I ever played in. That team had a lot of character, some really good players and produced some great football.
"People got right behind the national team. I've never known an atmosphere like it and when the World Cup came around we topped our group ahead of Italy. After our game against them I walked past their dressing room and it was like a funeral in there. They thought they were out of the competition. Unfortunately we then lost on penalties to the best Bulgaria side there's ever been. It was a match we should have won."
Four years later, with Garcia Aspe having acquired star status by this time, Mexico turned up at France 1998 and proceeded to play some of the most exciting football of the tournament. "We got used to coming from behind," continued the Mexico City native. "We were one down to Korea (Republic) at half-time and came back to win 3-1. And we were 2-0 down to Belgium and Holland and came away with a 2-2 draw on both occasions.
"Sadly for us we got Germany in the next round. The coach (Manuel Lapuente) said they could only beat us by getting balls into the box, and that's exactly what happened. It was a real shame because we had a great team that played attacking football and was in good physical shape."
From the past to the present
Out of the international scene for the next three years, Garcia Aspe made his return to El Tri at a critical time. "Javier Aguirre called me up a week before a crucial qualifier against USA," he said. "If we lost that match, we were out of the 2002 World Cup. It was a totally new team but we had the right attitude and went out and won.
"But when we got to the finals in Korea, the Americans knocked us out, which left a very bitter taste in the mouth. I think some players were a little weighed down by the responsibility of playing against our big rivals and they took advantage of that, beating us with the same system that has always worked for them, until the recent Gold Cup that is."
All that experience has stood Garcia Aspe in good stead for his current job as a match analyst, and he is better qualified than most to give an assessment on next week's qualifier between the two old rivals, a match taking place in remarkably similar circumstances to their 2001 meeting. "It's going to be very tough," he reasoned.
"USA will be trying hard not to concede and to win the game with a very specific gameplan. But we are virtually unbeatable at the Azteca. The stadium's going to be packed and I'm sure Mexico will find a way to beat them. The Gold Cup was a great morale booster too and that's going to make a difference for sure."
It is now seven years since Garcia Aspe retired from the game, and he has more than enough to keep him occupied. "When I retired I just wanted to enjoy spending time with my family. That's why I didn't want to go into coaching," he said.
"Then, a few months later, I was invited on to television and I'm very happy to have been doing that ever since. I've also got a marketing company and that's going great too. I'm not going to rule out coaching, though. Maybe one day."
Alberto Garcia Aspe
Clubs: Pumas UNAM, Necaxa, River Plate (ARG), América and Puebla
National Team: 109 matches (21 goals)
Titles and achievements: 4 mexican leagues (1991, 1995, 1996 and 1997), 1 CONCACAF Gold Cup (1996), 1 FIFA Confederations Cup (1999) and 3 appearances at the FIFA World Cup finals (1994, 1998 and 2002)