Very few countries can proudly claim to have competed in five consecutive FIFA World Cups™, but Mexico is one of them. In a sequence that started at USA 1994, El Tri have qualified in their own right for the four subsequent editions, making them a fixture at world football’s showpiece event. However, contrary to almost every prediction ahead of the Brazil 2014 qualifiers, there is a real possibility that this proud run could come to an end.
The team’s slump in form could not have come at a worse time, with Los Aztecas languishing second-bottom in CONCACAF’s six-team final qualifying round for Brazil 2014. Were the qualifiers to end today, the regional behemoth would miss out on a place at next year’s finals.
Fortunately for Mexico, there is still time to avert such a calamitous scenario. Moreover, the appointment of new coach Victor Manuel Vucetich has lifted the spirits of the squad, who are hopeful that this new start will provide the impetus needed to turn the situation around.
If they are to do that, then Mexico will almost certainly have to beat Panama on Friday 11 October at the Estadio Azteca. In previous campaigns, the fixture might have been regarded as routine, with victory practically assured but, between Panama’s marked improvement and El Tri’s crisis of confidence, the home side realise that an almighty effort will be required to secure the three points.
Discussing this and much more is goalkeeper and key figure Guillermo Ochoa, who granted an exclusive interview to FIFA.com.
A new start
With obvious good humour, Ochoa began our chat with a strong vote of confidence in the team’s prospects under the new coach. “As with any change, there’s a new vibe about the place, a different atmosphere. Given what we’ve been through, this is a 'renovation', and we hope it gives us the impetus we need to put this tough period behind us.
"The team are relaxed, content and confident in our capabilities – although not to the point of over-confidence,” the player currently earning rave reviews for his displays with French Ligue 1 side Ajaccio said.
The keeper knows only too well that there is no room for complacency against a direct qualification rival who, as well as sharing eight points, also held them to a scoreless draw in the corresponding fixture in Panama.
For Ochoa, however, the group’s keen focus and good ambiance hold the key to putting their recent problems behind them: “Unfortunately we had to endure that situation, but it’s from setbacks like those that you really learn.
"We’re all pros and many of us have seen it all before," he went on. "There will be times when everything goes your way, and others when things are much more complicated. It’s not the first time. We need to be united and pull together so that we overcome these problems as a group.”
A rollercoaster ride
When it comes to highs and lows, the 28-year-old is certainly qualified to talk. For one thing, his career trajectory with El Tri has been anything but straightforward. In spite of his abundant talent and consistent international call-ups since Germany 2006, the keeper has never been able to establish himself as his country’s undisputed No1.
In fact, he went from being named captain for the qualifiers against Honduras and USA earlier this year to being omitted from the squads that faced the same opposition again last month – a decision that caused considerable dismay among the fans and media.
Ochoa is now back in the fold and aiming to start against Panama. Like the rest of his team-mates, however, he prefers to look to the future. “Now is not the time for controversy. What happened in the past is over and done with.
"We’re now in a new phase and I’m here to collaborate to the best of my ability, whether I’m picked to play or not. What matters is winning these games,” he said with the confidence borne of his stellar displays in France, where he is considered one of the finest custodians in the league.
With the same conviction he brings to his shot-stopping, the player ends our chat with a promise to all those fans who have suffered with the team but still believe the new process will bear dividends. “I want to say that we’ll try to win for them. We know we’ve not been performing well, but we’ll run ourselves into the ground to make amends.
"I also want to tell them that we need to feel their unconditional support in the Azteca, even if things don’t go right immediately. We want all Mexico to be united – the team, media and fans – and then I’m sure we’ll secure a ticket to Brazil."