Following a tumultuous qualifying campaign for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, which featured a series of coaching changes and resulted in Mexico needing a play-off against New Zealand to finally secure their tournament ticket, current boss Miguel Herrera and his El Tri charges look to have definitively turned the page on those travails.
Indeed, the vibe emanating from the Azteca camp could barely be more different to the darker days of the North, Central America and Caribbean Zone qualifying phase, with plenty of good humour and smiles on show – particularly in a squad ‘selfie’ that ran riot on social networks. Nor are hope and expectation in short supply either, despite being drawn in Group A alongside host nation and title favourites Brazil.
With only around a fortnight to go before his side tackle A Verde e Amarelo, El Piojo Herrera spoke with FIFA.com about the shared footballing history between Brazil and Mexico, including how his country fell in love with the 1970 Seleção; El Tri’s big-game hoodoo over the South American giants; and how Brazil will need to watch out for “our hard work and determination” come 17 June in Fortaleza.
FIFA.com: Mexican fans have a real soft spot for Brazilian football, possibly thanks to the manner of A Canarinho’s victory at Mexico 1970. What does it mean to you and the squad to play at these finals in Brazil?
Miguel Herrera: Well, we all saw how the Mexican people fell in love with Brazil in Guadalajara [where Pele and Co played all but one of their matches at Mexico 1970], while they also got great backing at the [Mexico] 1986 finals. There’s a special fondness for them back home, thanks to how much those two World Cup experiences with them meant. For us it’s something truly exceptional to be here, though we can hardly expect the home fans to support us as we’re in the same group [as Brazil]. That said, it’d be fantastic if we can both qualify [for the Round of 16]. I’m sure the fans will get behind us and support us once that second group match [between the teams] is over, while loads of Mexicans will come down too. Let there be no doubt, us Mexicans get everywhere!
Mexico have always proved testing opponents for Brazil and have even beaten A Seleção in a number of decisive encounters. How do you explain this trend?
There’s no question we perform better against stronger teams – that’s always been the case with us. When Mexico face up to Brazil of course they're really up for it, they look to put in a big performance. We lost 2-0 against them in the last Confederations Cup, though they only got their second late on. We had played well and even had chances to level the match. In the [final of the] Olympic Football Tournament [in 2012] Mexico won, while at the last U-17 World Cup [in 2013] we won too [on penalties in the quarter-finals]. We generally play good football against Brazil. We mustn’t forget that we’re going to be taking on the host nation, historically the competition’s strongest side, but we have to give it absolutely everything. Beating Brazil in Brazil would get us noticed and make us feel on top of the world. That’s the way we need to approach this.
We can play well against the big teams.
What will Brazil need to be wary of when they face Mexico?
Our hard work and determination. We’re going to fight for and try to win every loose ball. I’m also certain we’ll cover a lot more ground than them, because if we want to win we’ll have to run our socks off. They’re a team that knows what to do with the ball, featuring players who can turn a game in an instant and can easily beat one or two men. There’s Neymar and Hulk, while I could list four, five or even six of their players who are all capable of tipping the balance. But if we can manage to double up on them in most areas of the pitch and prevent them running with the ball too much, I think we can be solid enough to then try and score ourselves.
Is there any one Brazil-Mexico clash you remember particularly vividly?
All the games we’ve played against them that I’ve been involved with or watched have been positive for Mexico. There was the Confederations Cup [in 1999] when we beat Brazil [in the final] in Mexico, or that [CONCACAF] Gold Cup they were invited to take part in [and lost to Mexico in the final in 2003]. I once even came to play [for Mexico in] a friendly against Brazil in Maceio, which we drew 1-1. I repeat, we can play well against the big teams.
Will Neymar be the hosts’ main threat on 17 June?
Well clearly, as I feel he’s Brazil’s most gifted player. He’s the figurehead of this team and currently of this World Cup, as it’s on home soil. They love him here. We’ll have to be really on our toes to stop a player of his ability.
How do you stop him?
By trying to stop him receiving the ball, that’s the best way. Once he’s got the ball he’s a guy who can tip the balance – he’s got so much skill he can beat one, two or even three players. We have to try and cut off the service: stopping him getting on the ball will be really important.
Can you draw any conclusions from the tactical approach used by Mexico versus Brazil in the final of London 2012? It worked perfectly then…
Totally, we’re going to try and cut off the service like on that day. Neymar didn’t see much of the ball and that’s how Mexico won the game. We’ll try something very similar. That said, given that this time we’re facing the senior Brazil side there’ll be even more quality players, but there’s no doubt we’ll keep a watchful eye on preventing Neymar linking up with his team-mates and vice-versa.