Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been
World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of
Read earlier columns
We knew how Mexico would perform against Argentina: pretty well. Mexico always does well against the top teams. And we knew what the result would be: a win for Argentina. Mexico never makes it past the second round. What we didn’t know was how the press would take it. On the one hand, the Tri put forth a splendid effort, playing one of the best teams in the world essentially even, losing only on a spectacular goal in extra time. On the other hand, they had lost in the second round for the fourth straight tournament. So was the glass half full or half empty?
It’s more important than you might think. More than anything Mexico wants to be ranked in the top tier of world football. If the USA loses, they just say “we’ll get ’em next time.” After all, they’re new to this soccer thing. But Mexico has been a regional power for more than half a century, and they’re tired of settling for second best.
Take a look at the record, and you’ll see how long Mexico’s apprenticeship has been. For many years they were the World Cup’s designated minnow. They qualified in 1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, and 1966, and won a grand total of one game in fourteen tries. In 1970 they hosted the tournament, and won their group, but were easily dismissed by Italy in the quarterfinals. In 1978 they came in with their greatest expectations ever--and lost all three games, including an embarrassing loss to Tunisia and a thorough 0:6 pasting by West Germany.
In was only in 1986, fully 36 years after their first post-war World Cup, that the team began to achieve respectability. They hosted again, won their group, were impressive against Bulgaria in the second round, and only lost to West Germany in the quarterfinals on penalty kicks. They were ineligible in 1990, but continued their progress in 1994, topping a group containing three European teams, losing on PK’s in the second round against semifinalist Bulgaria. In 1998 they were strong again, gaining a late draw with Guus Hiddink’s Holland and coming within 15 minutes of upsetting Germany. In 2002 they were better than ever, again topping their group, beating Croatia and Ecuador, drawing easily with Italy. Only the USA stood in the way of their first quarterfinal berth away from home.
You know what happened. They lost, were embarrassed. And suddenly they realized all this progress had gotten them nowhere. They still hadn’t beaten a top team at the World Cup, and weren’t even the sole power in the region anymore. It was no longer a matter of sporting results, it was a matter of honor. Mexico absolutely had to make the quarterfinals in 2006.
You have to follow Mexican football to understand the depth of their need. The Confederations Cup, which to most teams is a pointless exercise, is a matter of great seriousness in Mexico. When they hosted the tournament in 1999, and best Brazil in the Final, it was proclaimed as the greatest achievement in Mexican football history. A win over Brazil and PK loss against Argentina in 2005 made them even prouder. And when the U-17s beat the Netherlands and Brazil to win the FIFA Championship the same year, the nation celebrated as never before. Mexico was finally a champion, on a par with the great ones.
But one thing remained: the World Cup. It was time for the senior side to make their mark. Everywhere in the press you read that the quarterfinal was the absolute minimum they would accept. The pressure was particularly high because the coach, Ricardo LaVolpe, was so unpopular. At one point or another he had alienated every single citizen of Mexico, either with his tactics, his comments, or just the fact he was from Argentina. With a local hero like Hugo Sánchez at the helm, much could have been forgiven. But with LaVolpe, even the smallest slip and the roof would fall in. He absolutely had to get past the second round.
But the draw was unlucky: the team had to face Argentina, where it could just as easily have been Switzerland. And although they performed magnificently, they still lost. So would it be “well done against the odds, lads” or “oh, no, not another loss”? Half full or half empty?
You guessed it. Half empty. A wire service headline contained the phrase “Chain of Failures,” and listed every bad thing they could think of that LaVolpe had said or done in the last three years. The online newspapers were more sober, but emphasized the loss, not the great effort. “Another Sad Finale,” said one, quoting a local coach on what LaVolpe had done wrong. “The Same Story,” said another. One quoted Cuauhtémoc Blanco, the rejected striker, calling LaVolpe a “loser.” And so on. No one criticized the team--how could they? But few had any kind words for the coach.
In fact, LaVolpe had done a remarkable job on the night. With his central midfielders inconsistent, he came up with a novel solution: drop them all off and go with wide men. Mario Méndez and Gringo Castro were on the right, Ramón Morales and teenager Andrés Guardado on the left. It was a speedy, attack-oriented lineup, and in the first half it caught the Argentines flatfooted. Jared Borgetti, coming off injury, was looking remarkably lively, and forced Abbondanzieri into an outstanding save. For a while it really looked as if they had a chance.
But with Blanco left home, the team lacked that one special player who could make a difference at top level. Although they were never outplayed, they rarely looked like scoring. Losing Pavel Pardo, their best man on set pieces, was a major blow. In the second half the only hope was Sinha, who looked sharp, just not sharp enough. Eventually Argentina’s class won through. At the end of regulation time, Tevez and Messi combined for a perfectly legal winner that was ruled offside. And then of course there was Maxi Rodríguez’s golazo --put it next to Bergkamp’s on the list of spectacular winners.
After the game LaVolpe said he’d like to stay on as coach, but that was just for show. They’ll ask the Emperor Maximilian to return before LaVolpe. But his tenure was so bitter on all sides that I doubt he’d stay on for long even if they asked him. The likely choice is Hugo Sánchez, who has been angling for the job forever, and may actually deserve it.
But if I were Hugo, I wouldn’t take it just yet. In four years even a hero can lose his luster, and he’s not the most even-tempered of men. Wait for another coach to flop in the Gold Cup or the early qualifiers, then take over as the savior. But either way don’t expect much room for error. A day after the loss, the press began to realize that the team put on a special performance, that there’s a lot of young talent in the pipeline, and that Mexico earned a little respect from the world. But they also said things like “The End of the Dream,” and “What Matters Most Is Winning.” The glass is half empty until further notice.
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