On paper it looks like somewhat of a mismatch with 14-time FIFA World Cup™ participants Mexico taking on Oceania nation New Zealand for a berth at Brazil 2014. But the FIFA World Cup inter-continental play-offs rarely fail to deliver drama and intrigue. This time is set to be no different with numerous sub-plots surrounding the meeting of these two teams in Wednesday’s opening leg in Mexico City, with the return seven days later in Wellington.
Mexico are one of the great World Cup nations and have appeared at every edition of the global tournament since 1990. On that occasion they were barred from the qualifying tournament, and one has to go back a further eight years for the last time Mexico completed an unsuccessful campaign. Rarely, though, have they endured such a tumultuous ride as this. Miguel Herrera assumed the coaching reins a few weeks ago in the wake of a turbulent campaign where even Mexico’s home form at their fabled fortress-like Azteca Stadium was modest at best. During the final stage ‘Hexagonal’, El Tri managed just one win in five home matches and even that required a miracle goal, delivered by a gravity-defying Raul Jimenez with an overhead kick five minutes from full time. It transpired that Mexico needed that winner, combined with a desperately unlucky loss for Panama in their final match, simply to reach the play-off. And the outspoken Herrera has rolled the dice for the play-off by leaving out European-based stars such as Javier Hernandez and the in-form Giovani dos Santos.
New Zealand though head to Mexico City with problems of their own. The West Ham United-based Winston Reid - team captain and defensive cornerstone since last year’s retirement of Ryan Nelsen - has been ruled out with ankle problem, while experienced striker Chris Killen and young utility Tim Payne are also out injured. Adding to Ricki Herbert’s concerns is the match fitness of star forwards Shane Smeltz and young gun Marco Rojas, both of whom have only just returned following long-term injuries. New Zealand have the benefit of experience from their intercontinental play-off four years ago when they saw off Bahrain to end a 28-year World Cup drought. On the debit side none of the playing squad will have played in an environment such as a heaving Azteca with so much on the line. The fact that Mexico City has more inhabitants than New Zealand’s entire population adds another layer to the relative scale of this contest.
2 – The number of losses Mexico have suffered at the Azteca in 78 World Cup qualifying matches.
Player to watch
Marco Rojas (New Zealand)
He may sound Latin but Marco Rojas was born in the quiet city of Hamilton on New Zealand’s north island. Last season’s A-League player of the year following a stellar season with Melbourne Victory, Rojas earned a move to Stuttgart and, given Reid’s injury, he is the only member of the New Zealand squad playing in one of Europe’s top few leagues. Rojas operates in a wide midfield or forward role and though small in stature, he boasts richly-skilled, fast-moving feet. With Chilean parentage, the Spanish-speaking Rojas was mobbed by Mexican media on the team’s arrival in Mexico City on Monday.
“The intensity in which they play in Europe really tires them out. I have tried to talk to all of them and explain my reasons, but this group of 23 is extraordinary and we are sure we will bring back a ticket," Mexico coach Miguel Herrera on his rationale for omitting European-based players.