By Jay Mwamba
Mexico, Group G
Long the Central and North American region’s undisputed powerhouse, Mexico’s World Cup legend in 12 previous appearances has been largely defined by their role as hosts of two of the most exciting finals in the tournament’s 72-year history.
Mexico ’70, won by Pele and his magical Brazilian squad for a then record third time, and Mexico ’86, which saw Diego Maradona and Argentine flair at its best, put the Mexicans in the spotlight more than any of their achievements.
Mexico got no further than the quarterfinals in both championships despite enjoying fanatical home support and having a strong ally in the rarified air of Mexico City.
Japan/Korea ’02 offers another opportunity for the soccer-crazy Central American nation to make its mark on the global stage after recent successes by its clubs and national team in Latin American competitions.
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It will be Mexico’s 12th World Cup outing, and one that should test the abilities of coach Javier Aguirre and his intriguing side as they lock horns with Croatia, Ecuador and Italy — in that order — in Group G.
A member of Mexico’s 1986 squad whose hopes of a semifinal place were agonizingly shattered by a penalty shoot-out loss to West Germany, Aguirre turned the team’s qualification fortunes around after poor runs under Manuel Lapuente and Enrique Meza had left them in limbo.
Mexico were in danger of missing the finals midway through the qualifiers when Aguirre replaced Meza at the helm. He took the side from second-to-last in the six-nation final round CONCACAF qualifying competition to second best, behind Costa Rica, with a string of victories at home and away.
Instrumental in the Mexican resurgence was the return from injury of Spanish-based forward CuauhtTmoc Blanco and Aguirre’s recall of several seasoned players, led by midfield workhorse Alberto Garcia Aspe, a veteran of nearly 100 caps who played in USA ’94 and France ’98.
Given the captain’s armband by Aguirre, Aspe provided the leadership and experience Mexico had sorely missed in their midfield-dominated game.
A stocky, combative battler in the middle of the park, Aspe is on course to lead Mexico to Japan, where his influence in the squad may only be surpassed by that of Blanco, the golden boy of Mexican football.
A fan favorite at France ’98 where he amused crowds by hopping over defenders with the ball squeezed between his feet, the forceful Blanco, more than any other player, should determine how far Mexico progress in the finals.
The 28-year-old from Real Valladolid struck five times down the stretch in the qualifiers after coming back from serious knee injury, and had a team-high nine goals altogether.
Blanco is also Mexico’s dead-ball specialist ability and his ability to run both at defenders and into space could make him a defender’s nightmare in the humidity of the Far East.
His likely striking partner in coach Aguirre’s trusted 4-4-2 formation will come from the trio of Francisco Palencia, the only other Mexican forward playing overseas, Jared Borgetti, and old hand Luis Hernandez.
The quick and lithe Palencia, on the books of Spain’s Espanyol, should get the nod, with both the physical Borgetti and Hernandez, a France ’98 veteran, standing in reserve.
Mexico’s other impact player is Raf’l Marquez, a stylish defender with good attacking instincts who plies his trade with French glamour side Monaco.
The Mexicans have made it out of the first round in their last two World Cup trips — losing on penalties in the Round of 16 to surprise package Bulgaria at USA ’94, and succumbing 2-1 to a late German blitz in France four years ago after Hernandez had put them ahead.
They face an unfamiliar foe in their Japan/Korea ’02 opener, in the shape of Croatia in Niigata on June 3, and the outcome could all but decide their ultimate fate.
The importance Mexico are attaching to this game can be gauged by their recent rush of friendlies in the United States against East European countries with styles akin to Croatia’s.
In the last 10 weeks, they’ve lost 2-1 to Yugoslavia in Phoenix, hammered Albania 4-0, in San Diego, and edged Bulgaria 1-0, at the Meadowlands.
Game No. 2 in Group G will be an interesting clash against Ecuador, whose key player, midfield m’stro Alex Aguinaga, has spent the last 12 years of his career in the Mexican league, in Miyagi on June 9.
The Mexicans then wind up in Oita on June 13 against Italy, whom they last met in the finals at USA ’94. They tied 1-1. Prior to that encounter, the two countries last World Cup meeting was Italy’s 4-1 quarterfinal victory in Mexico City in the 1970 tournament.
As a football power, Mexico are a decent, well-organized side that, as their run to the 2001 Copa America (South American Championship) final proves, can perform on the big stage. Nevertheless, they are frequently underrated on account of their region of origin (CONCACAF).
The biggest knock against Mexico is their lack of star power. This may be the case in Japan where even the effervescent presence of Blanco may not be enough if they get past the first round.
Mexico’s other World Cup appearances were in 1930, 1950, 1954, 1958,
1962, 1966, and 1978.
(Each week, Jay Mwamba previews a World Cup finalist. The teams profiled previously are Cameroon, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Denmark, Uruguay, Senegal, France, Paraguay, Slovenia, Spain, South Africa, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Turkey, the United States, South Korea, Portugal, Poland, Nigeria, Sweden, Argentina, England, Croatia and Ecuador.)