Mexico's oldest football club are about to embark on the biggest challenge of their long history when they head east for the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2007. The country's third representatives in the event, CF Pachuca will have two goals in mind when they touch down in the Land of the Rising Sun: to improve on Necaxa's third-place finish in the competition's inaugural year and to become the first Mexican side to reach the final.
Leading Los Tuzos on their mission will be Enrique Meza, a man who has experienced the highs and lows of top-level management. Although famed for his economical way with words, he spoke to FIFA.com about the challenge of returning to the country where he endured one of the biggest disappointments of his career. With the big event just a matter of weeks away, could the stern-faced coach finally be about to get some payback.
Success and despair
Known in Mexico as Ojitos (Little Eyes), Meza rose to prominence at the end of the nineties when he steered firm relegation candidates Morelia and Toros Neza to salvation, even converting the latter into domestic contenders and taking them to a league play-off final. It was with Toluca that he enjoyed his finest hours, however, guiding the provincial side to three league titles out of a possible five between 1998 and 2000.
Having built up a reputation for fashioning enterprising, attack-minded teams, Meza was rewarded with the ultimate accolade at the end of 2000 when he took over as Mexico coach.
No sooner had he settled into the post than his luck began to
change, his appointment coinciding with a dramatic downturn in
El Tri's fortunes as their form deserted them and the
defeats came thick and fast. Following Mexico's early
elimination from the FIFA Confederations Cup Korea/Japan 2001, a
tournament they went into as defending champions, and a sluggish
start to the CONCACAF qualifying tournament for the 2002 FIFA World
Cup Korea/Japan, Meza was given his marching orders. His reign had
lasted a matter of months.
Yet that was not the end of his coaching travails. Unsuccessful stints with Atlas and Cruz Azul followed, and his fall from grace was complete when his return to Toluca, the club he had taken to the heights just a few short years before, lasted just 12 games.
Another bite of the cherry
Fortunately, salvation was at hand. Left coachless just a day after claiming the 2006 Clausura championship, Pachuca quickly turned to Meza to fill the breach, an appointment widely regarded in Mexican footballing circles as the luckless coach's last chance to salvage his reputation.
Having got off to a stumbling start, the club's directors kept faith with the former national boss and were promptly rewarded with a glut of trophies. After becoming the first Mexican outfit to win a CONMEBOL tournament when they landed the 2006 Copa Sudamericana following a fine second-leg win away to Colo Colo of Chile, Meza's men quickly added the 2007 Clausura trophy, the CONCACAF Champions' Cup and the North American SuperLiga.
An opportunity from on high
That Champions' Cup success brought with it a ticket to Japan and the FIFA Club World Cup, and a chance for Meza to exorcise the ghosts of one of the worst chapters in his coaching career. Not that the 59-year-old has retribution on his mind.
"I don't look upon it as a chance for revenge," he replies when reminded of his previous trip to the Far East six years ago. "I just think that God has given me another opportunity."
Los Tuzos' amazing 18-month run of success, which has brought two league titles and three international cup triumphs, has come at something of a cost. Burdened with a workload that even Europe's major powers would baulk at, Pachuca are starting to feel the effects and are well off the pace in the 2007 Apertura championship. Even so, Meza is determined to keep driving his players hard.
"The team is working really well," he says. "We always go flat out and that's what we need to keep doing. We need to keep working to get back to the level we were at before."
While AC Milan and Boca Juniors may be most people's favourites to contest the final on 16 December, with the identity of two of the qualifiers yet to be revealed, including Pachuca's African opponents in the quarter-finals, the wily Mexican is reluctant to make predictions, mindful of the need to show respect to his opponents.
Assuming the Mexicans come through that test, a semi-final with Boca awaits, and beyond that a possible final with the Italian aristocrats. Great though the challenge is, as far as Meza is concerned, it pales in significance with the task he faced as Mexico coach. "There's nothing bigger than coaching your country," he comments, before ruling out all possibility of a return to the national hotseat. "The current coach is doing a fine job and I've had my chance."
As he takes his leave, though, even the taciturn Meza has to acknowledge that in football anything is possible: "Only God knows what he has in store for me."