Mexico, USA, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Panama and Honduras – the six survivors in North Central American and Caribbean qualifying – begin a near year-long marathon final round this week. The ‘Hexagonal’ promises drama and controversy, fine football and thrills and spills aplenty as the six battle for 3.5 places at the FIFA World Cup Brazil 2014™. FIFA.com takes a look ahead at Wednesday’s first matchday.
The big game
USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann called in his big guns, like Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey, and he talks the talk of a man familiar with the pitfalls of playing on the road in CONCACAF. “There can be no mistakes, no mental errors,” he told FIFA.com. “You have to be ready to adjust because it’s unpredictable here.” The German icon, without Landon Donovan, who is taking his time deciding whether or not to continue on with international football, learned these lessons the hard way in the last round, losing to Jamaica in Kingston and drawing against Guatemala away.
The first test of Klinsmann’s first Hexagonal campaign will be an even sterner test, in San Pedro Sula against Honduras, who haven’t tasted defeat in their last five qualifiers, and beat Canada by an alarming 8-1 scoreline in their last game at home. It’s not just quick-fire strikers like Jerry Bengston and Carlos Costly that the Americans, aiming to reach their seventh straight FIFA World Cup, will have to worry about, but also a ferocious atmosphere at the Estadio Olimpico, one of Central America’s most intimidating grounds. An afternoon kick-off threatened to keep fans away, but the Honduran government took care of that problem by declaring a national holiday.
Speaking of home-field advantage, Mexico – the top team in the region – open their account against Jamaica at their Mexico City fortress, Estadio Azteca. Host of two FIFA World Cup Finals, 1970 and 1986, the stadium is known far and wide for its altitude and wild, passionate banks of fans. “It’s the most intimidating place you can possibly imagine,” remarked Luton Shelton, top scorer for a Jamaican team that not only beat USA in the previous round, but are looking altogether rejuvenated under coach Theodore Whitmore. With pace, organisation and solid defence, the Reggae Boyz aren’t even letting the spectre of the Azteca worry them: “We’ll get our chances,” said Shelton, “there’s no reason we can’t get a result there.”
Jose Manuel de la Torre’s Mexico have other ideas. The reigning CONCACAF and Olympic champions, who have reached no fewer than 14 FIFA World Cups, pack a punch in attack with Giovani dos Santos, Andres Guardado and Javier Chicharito Hernandez leading the line. They won all of their games in the last round of qualifying and have only ever lost one qualifier at the Azteca in their entire history.
The other game is a clash of near neighbours, with recently crowned Central American champions Costa Rica travelling to take on Panama. While the Ticos, who have reached the world finals three times, are Central American royalty, the Canaleros are on the rise, updating their reputation by putting together a firm and cohesive squad, led by coach and former playing idol Julio Dely Valdes. “Now is the time for Panama,” their striker and qualifying top-scorer Blas Perez told FIFA.com. He added: “We have a small advantage too, playing at home,” fully aware that the side not only didn’t lose at their Panama City Estadio Rommel Fernandez in the last round of qualifying, but they didn’t even concede a goal.
What they’re saying
“We’ve got a great generation of players, who have been tasting success and we’re full of confidence. Hopefully we can start with a win and set the tone for what’s to follow. I think we have what it takes to have a great year,” Mexico’s Dos Santos is hoping the year to come can match 2012, when Mexico won their first-ever Olympic gold.
30 – games will be played, each of the six teams in the Hexagonal lining up ten times over the course of nine long months. On offer: three guaranteed spots at Brazil 2014, with the fourth-placed team facing a play-off against the champion of the Oceania zone for a potential fourth spot.
CONCACAF final round Hexagonal, matchday 1
Have your say
Will home comforts reign in CONCACAF in the Hex’s first matchday? Will Panama, Mexico and Honduras ride familiar fields and atmospheres to opening day successes? Click ‘add your comment’ and let us know what you think.