Over the years, the career paths of Carlos Salcido and Francisco Rodriguez have never diverged for too long. Together the pair formed a very effective defensive partnership for four seasons at Guadalajara. The former then played a starring role for Mexico at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ in Germany, while the latter looked on approvingly from the bench, snatching just 45 minutes of the final group match against Portugal. Upon the tournament’s conclusion, Salcido left to ply his particularly robust trade in Europe, leaving Rodriguez behind in Mexico. But not for long.
Two years down the line, Rodriguez would join forces with his compatriot once again at PSV Eindhoven, where coach Fred Rutten proceeded to build a new-look team on the foundations provided by the Salcido-Rodriguez central defensive pairing, lifting the club back into the upper echelons of the Eredivisie. At national team level, however, coach Javier Aguirre has made considerably less use of Rodriguez, preferring to align Rafael Marquez alongside Salcido at the back.
But neither of PSV’s Mexican stars would ever criticise* El Vasco* (‘The Basque’), who, since returning to the helm of the national team after their disastrous start to the qualifying campaign for South Africa, has now got the whole country behind him. “He talks a lot with his players; he’s always pushing us that little bit further, motivating us with just the right words,” explained Rodriguez, called up twice last June by the former Atletico Madrid tactician. “His communication within the group is second to none – it’s one of the secrets of his success with the national team," he told FIFA.com.”
Answering the distress call of a floundering team at the beginning of 2009, Sven-Goran Eriksson’s successor has since more than steadied the Mexican ship. And nor was it the first time he did this, having performed a similar rescue act to ensure that the Mexican flag would fly at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan. “We’ve had three different coaches, but Aguirre has managed to get everybody working towards the same goal,” confirmed Salcido. "He’ll make sure we’re very well-prepared and completely ready for the challenge that lies ahead. The difficult stage is behind us now.” It is an assertion that appears to be backed up by statistics. Under Aguirre’s guidance, El Tri have gone from fifth to second place in the CONCACAF sub-section of the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, having recorded five wins, a draw and a defeat in recent games.
Classic blend of youth and experience
The former Mexican international can even boast a run of eleven matches without a loss, sandwiched between defeats by El Salvador and Colombia, achieved solely with players based in the nation’s domestic league. He went as far as to claim recently that he is fortunate to have “the best generation of young footballers in the history of the country” at his disposal, alluding to certain members of the 2005 FIFA U-17 World Cup-winning team. But Aguirre is also aware that he will need his trusted veterans to provide support to young players such as Giovani dos Santos, Carlos Vela, Efrain Juarez and Hector Moreno, among others, who struggled considerably during the qualifying campaign.
For Salcido, the actual FIFA World Cup and its qualifying matches are two very different beasts. “We had great trouble making it to the World Cup – we lacked consistency and stability,” says the former Chivas centre-back. “Pressure is something we have to deal with all the time. The Mexican people desperately wanted us to qualify, and so that’s what we did. But now we’re starting from scratch in another, almost unrelated competition. We’ll need to be at our very best as we all want to play a part in creating a bit of history. We want to go further than we did in Germany last time. It’ll take discipline, strength and bags of enthusiasm.”
Enthusiasm is definitely not lacking, as far as the players representing El Tri are concerned. “We all have a responsibility to defend our country's jersey as best we can,” states Rodriguez, conscious of the difficult task facing his fellow countrymen. “We’re going to be playing against three different styles of football. Uruguay we know, Europe as well, but Africa? Less so. Each match will be different – it offers us an interesting challenge. But the most important thing is that we play our own game. If the basics are there, adapting to our opponents shouldn’t be a problem.”
No quarter given
The declared objective for Aguirre and his men is to reach the quarter-finals. Mexico have never managed better than seventh place – in 1970 and 1986 – at a FIFA World Cup, but the initial mission for this 2010 crop of players is to get beyond the Round of 16, a hurdle the North Americans have been unable to clear at the last four tournaments.
With years of experience behind him, Salcido knows that stability is ultimately linked to the eventual performances of a team now having to live up to the enormous expectations of fans and media alike. “As to whether or not we’re in the process of building something that will last, I couldn’t tell you. Future stability will depend on our results in South Africa. If we don’t play well, there will inevitably be criticism – the press as well as the public will demand change.”
With seven preparatory friendlies planned, Salcido and Rodriguez will already have a good idea of how far they can go prior to the start of FIFA’s flagship tournament, and whether or not they are set for stability or change in its immediate aftermath.