It’s difficult to recall many positive moments in Mexico’s convoluted road to the 2014 FIFA World Cup™. The CONCACAF Hexagonal campaign will be remembered mostly for their rapidly revolving cast of coaches, poor form at their normally reliable Estadio Azteca and a general smell of crisis in the camp and in the stands.
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Usually it’s the visitors who feel the pressure of a trip to Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca, but the Stadium became a torture chamber for El Tri in qualifying. Something was amiss from the start, a goalless draw with bottom side Jamaica could easily have been a loss had it not been for goalkeeper Jesus Corona. Fans returned hoping for better in later fixtures at the historic old ground – which has hosted two FIFA World Cup finals – but all they got was more misery. The Mexicans picked up just six of their eventual 11 Hexagonal points at home, from one win against Panama and three 0-0 draws.
The nadir of their home woes came on 6 September 2013, a day that will live in infamy. The 2-1 loss to Honduras on hallowed ground was only Mexico’s second defeat in 78 qualifying games at Azteca.
US aid to the rescue
In the ultimate irony, Mexico’s passage to the intercontinental playoff with New Zealand was secured by their most heated rival: USA. A pair of late goals in Panama City saw the Stars and Stripes beat minnows Panama to keep Mexico alive on the Hexagonal’s final matchday. TV Azteca commentator Christian Martinoli’s rant at the final whistle will go down in legend and lore of the CONCACAF zone. “We love you! We love you forever and ever! God Bless America!” said the Mexican journalist, before lambasting the underperforming Mexican players, who lost their final contest in Costa Rica.
The irony was not lost on the USA’s FA, who took to Twitter shortly after the final whistle with this gem of wit and understatement: #You’reWelcomeMexico. Headlines stressing a debt of thanks to the US blanketed every major Mexican paper the next morning, one even showed a manipulated photo of Chicharito – who only scored twice in Mexico’s ten Hexagonal games – hoisting an American flag.
Few shining stars, one obvious omission
Amid the general negativity of the campaign, there were some who wore the green jersey with pride. Before being dropped with the rest of the Europe-based contingent for the playoff, Gio dos Santos showed not only his usual panache on the ball, but a willingness to work hard for the cause. Jesus Corona, Mexico’s Olympic gold medal-winning keeper, had shining his moments too, as did Oribe Peralta, the Santos Laguna striker who scored three goals in his last six games. The most inspiring moment, however, belonged to Raul Jimenez in the dying moments of the lone home win over Panama. His flying bicycle-kick sealed Mexico’s only Hexagonal victory at Azteca, and the crowd’s explosive response hearkened back to better days. Without that goal, Mexico would not be going to Brazil.
One player was conspicuous for his absence: Carlos Vela. The striker is currently in the form of his life with Spanish club side Real Sociedad, but a falling out with a previous coach keeps him in the international wilderness. It’s a problem the Mexicans will need to solve, one way or another, as they look ahead.
When pressure rises, fingers point…and coaches lose their jobs. Mexico’s rotating managerial cast during the qualifying Hexagonal was a major indicator of systemic problems. Jose Manuel Chepo de la Torre was shown the door after the ignominious home loss to Honduras. His assistant and successor, Jose Luis Tena, lasted just one game before being replaced by Victor Manuel Vucetich. “What matters to me most is Mexico, Mexico, Mexico,” said the man known as King Midas for his long list of successes as club level. Unfortunately for Vucetich, the country’s FA didn’t have the same level of commitment. He was shown the door two games later. “Four coaches in a month says it all,” said a frustrated Dos Santos from Spain. “The team lacks a style and an idea of what we should be doing on the field.”
Herrera’s home remedies and the road ahead
El Tri’s fourth coach, Miguel Herrera, steadied the ship. Leaving out Dos Santos and the rest of the foreign stars, like Javier Chicharito Hernandez, he cobbled together a team exclusively from the local leagues, and heavily drawn from the team he coaches, Club America. Fourth time was a charm too, as Hererra’s men humbled New Zealand, scoring five in the home leg and four on the road in Wellington to emphatically book a place in Brazil. Their goal tally over those two legs was just two short of the total number of goals they scored in the entire Hexagonal. Rafa Marquez’s return as captain and defensive lynchpin helped the new-look side blend into a cohesive unit, offering much-needed stability.
Questions remain for Mexico as they look ahead to Brazil: Who will their coach be (Herrera’s two-game contract is up), what will the team look like, and how far behind them will El Tri be able to put this troubling qualifying campaign?