It was the cruellest of blows. Three weeks before Mexico were due to kick off their FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup Marseille 2008 campaign, Morgan Plata, the inspiration behind their improbable charge to the Rio de Janeiro 2007 final, resigned from the squad. The forward had welcomed an offer from 11-a-side outfit Dorados and, according to many, consequently slammed the door on Mexico's chances of emulating their heroics of last November.
Mexicans, nevertheless, revel in the role of underdog. Courageous, relentless and impossible to intimidate, they have a proud tradition of sporting upsets. One of these came in their maiden participation at the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup last year.
They debuted against Russia, at whose hands they were expected to suffer a harsh education. Mexico did not adhere to the script, though, and their penalty shootout victory proved the start of a giant-killing run to the deciding match, Iberian giants Spain and previous finalists Uruguay among their victims before Brazil extinguished the threat of a miracle.
Little over eight months on from the climax to their charming adventure on the Copacabana, Ramon Raya's side once again finds itself cast in the role of David. When the Marseille 2008 draw grouped them with a pair of Goliaths in Brazil and Spain, and the unpredictable Japanese, the consensus was that Mexico's chances of reaching the knockout phase were even slighter than before. Plata's withdrawal amplified this notion.
Raya, nevertheless, insists Mexico's 2007 success was indebted to collective application rather than individual genius. "Morgan Plata did really well last year and his four goals in the semi-final got him a lot of credit, but a number of our players had really good tournaments," he said. "We have good individuals, but the real star of this squad is the teamwork and unity of our players and that's what got us to the final."
That achievement is one of two the wily coach cites behind the confidence his side will carry into Marseille 2008, the other being El Tri's triumph at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Peru 2005. "That team paved the way for all Mexican teams," he explained. "They showed us that if we combine the talent Mexicans have with the right mindset, we can win tournaments. They gave us the belief.
This belief is currently running through the veins of the Mexican players. "Our group here in Marseille is difficult and many people expect Brazil and Spain to go through, but our performance in Rio de Janeiro has lifted our confidence," Raya said. "Our aim is to do our best. We want to finish the tournament happy, satisfied with our work. ."