by Kristan Heneage
STOOD OUTSIDE the Sporting Kansas City training complex were a huddle of Mexican fans, clutching everything from bottles of expensive tequila to a large portrait of their newest saint.
The man they were waiting for was U.S. international Graham Zusi. The midfielder had helped the U.S. to a 3-2 win over Panama just days earlier and thus been dubbed ‘San Zusi’. As well as curtailing the Panamanians World Cup dream it had also dragged Mexico into a play-off spot, something they were now eternally grateful for — one commentator even switching to English during a broadcast to thank his amigos to the north.
The fact Mexico found themselves in such a situation spoke volumes of the instability. Speaking bluntly, Giovanni Dos Santos laid out the situation in October last year: “Four coaches in a month says it all. (The team) lacks a style and an idea of what we should be doing on the field.”
By that time, the fourth coach Miguel Herrera — nicknamed ‘the louse’ — had been in the job less than a month. An experienced manager who had played just over a dozen times for the Mexican national team, he initially took the role while also managing Club América. It was reflected in his first squad, which contained almost a dozen players from América.
That was of little concern to the Mexican people though. Surpassing New Zealand and making it to Brazil was the primary goal after a horrible qualifying campaign. They would overcome the Kiwis in quite comfortable fashion. Scoring 9 goals over two legs, it was two more than they had managed in their 10 qualifiers.
Herrera had opted to name a domestic based squad for both legs. Captained by Rafael Marquez who was back in Mexico after a torrid time in Major League Soccer, the omission of Mexico’s European based players further highlighted one of the reason’s for their struggles.
Carlos Vela will not be at this summer’s World Cup. He is not injured, nor is he on the fringes of the squad, his absence is self imposed: “Where there are situations that I do not like, I prefer not to participate. I wish them luck [in the World Cup] but I will not be there,” Vela told Spanish TV earlier this year.
The reason or ‘situation’ is yet to be fully clarified, and speculation over it has lead to tedious and convoluted discussion. Some believe it related to the events of September 2010, when Vela along with a number of teammates engaged in a wild party after a friendly against Colombia.
Handed a six month suspension along with teammate Efrain Juárez, Vela was left publicly humiliated by proceedings. His absence will certainly be a blow to a Mexican side that struggled to score goals in qualifying. He is arguably the best Mexican player at present. It was hoped after their Olympic gold medal that qualifying would provide a platform for the next generation to succeed.
Instead struggles ensued and goals became a rare sight. Much of that was attributed to their lack of Plan B tactically. Again Dos Santos spoke bluntly and honestly about the situation. “Spain found a style that suited it,” he explained. “In Mexico a lot of coaches have come, but they haven’t found it. They put in a system without being bothered where you play for your club.”
Using himself as an example, the former Barcelona man cited his club position — behind the striker — and how it allows him to influence proceedings. Yet for El Tri, he consistently found himself out wide on the right. “I can’t produce as much,” he said.
Mexican shortcomings were not the only factor however. CONCACAF teams in general had become harder to beat. Costa Rica represented an intimidating proposition at home in San Jose, not only beating Mexico but also the United States.
Thus it projects an intriguing picture for Mexico moving into the 2014 tournament. Herrera has already demanded professionalism from his players. “If a player can not endure a month or 20 days without having intercourse, then you are not prepared to be a professional. Let’s play a World Cup, we’re not going to a party,” he told Reforma recently.
The protege of former Mexico coach Ricardo La Volpe, Herrera will likely play a similar 5-3-2 formation. Possession based and attacking, Herrera will encourage the wing-backs to attack. An exciting team to watch, they will not sit back.
Faced with a game against hosts Brazil, Mexico have still been presented with a winnable situation. Cameroon, for all their consistent qualification have rarely flourished in a World Cup setting. Equally Croatia endured a disastrous qualifying campaign, in which they won just one of their last five group games.
Saved by Niko Kovac who entered the scene as manager, there is an uncertainty over which Croatian side will show up. Equally Mexico are still able to call upon some of their more talented European based players.
Guillermo Ochoa has been in sensational form for Ajaccio despite the French side being relegated from Ligue 1 this season. Of particular highlight was his one man show against PSG at the Parc des Princes earlier this season.
The aforementioned Dos Santos will give the team a creative spark, while Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez will be hoping he can add to the goals he scored in South Africa four years ago.
All in all it means Mexico would appear a safe bet to emerge the group stages. However, my concern for them remains the knockout rounds. At the last World Cup they began brightly and were far more harmonious than at present. Given they will likely face either Spain or the Netherlands, I’d expect them to bow out after the first round of 16.