After a turbulent couple of years that has seen three coaches come and go and more than sixty players pull on the famous green jersey, Mexico have returned to calmer waters under the steadying influence of Javier Aguirre. The former Atletico Madrid coach has put together a team comprising bright young talents and established stars, restoring their wavering confidence in the process.
Following the appointment of the man they call El Vasco (The Basque), the regional powerhouses shot up from fifth to second place in the final six-team qualification group in the CONCACAF Zone, winning five games, drawing one and losing just the one. Having safely made their way to the finals, their objective will now be to progress beyond the Round of 16, where they have been knocked out at the last four FIFA World Cup™ finals.
THE ROAD TO SOUTH AFRICA
After disposing of Belize with a minimum of fuss in the second qualifying round, Mexico were drawn into a tough group containing Jamaica, Canada and Honduras in the following phase. Coached at the time by Sven Goran Eriksson, El Tri struggled to impose their authority and only scraped in the fourth and final round on goal difference ahead of the Reggae Boyz.
The Mexicans' erratic form continued in the final six-team round-robin group, kicking off with a 2-0 defeat in the USA before beating Costa Rica by the same scoreline and then losing 3-1 to Honduras. That last defeat cost Eriksson his job and his replacement by Aguirre, who stepped in in similar circumstances on the road to Korea/Japan 2002.
And once again the unflappable Aguirre worked a miracle, transforming Mexican fortunes despite kicking off with a 2-1 reverse in El Salvador. Victories over each of their five group rivals then followed, giving them a ticket to the finals with one game to spare. After a draw against Trinidad and Tobago in their final outing, the men in green ended the group in second place behind eternal rivals USA.
THE START PLAYERS
Veteran playmaker Cuauhtemoc Blanco is perhaps the player Mexico fans should thank for their side's turnaround. Lured out of retirement by Aguirre, the uniquely talented 36-year-old became the symbol of a revitalised team, helping younger team-mates such as Guillermo Ochoa, Efrain Juarez, Andres Guardado and Giovani dos Santos to find their best form. Along with skipper Rafael Marquez, they are sure to provide the nucleus of the squad that will travel to South Africa 2010.
Javier Aguirre is Mexico's most successful coach of recent times. After guiding the unfancied Pachuca to the league championship in 1999, El Vasco was handed the job of reviving the national team's faltering bid to qualify for Korea/Japan 2002. After doing just that, he then took the Mexicans to the top of a challenging group that contained Italy, Croatia and Ecuador, though their Asian adventure came to an end with a last-16 defeat to USA.
After the tournament he signed a contract with Spanish club Osasuna, taking them to the UEFA Champions League in 2005/06. That impressive achievement led to a switch to Atletico Madrid, and though he steered Los Colchoneros into fourth place in 2007/08, he was dismissed halfway through the following season, the wheel turning full circle again when he took over a crisis-stricken Mexico. And having come to his country's rescue for a second time, the wily Aguirre is eyeing a lengthy stay at South Africa 2010.
PREVIOUS FIFA WORLD CUPS
· Mexico have qualified for the FIFA World Cup finals 14 times in all, more than any other side from the CONCACAF Zone.
· Mexico's achieved their best-ever performances in the finals as tournament hosts in 1970 and 1986, reaching the last eight on both occasions.
· South Africa 2010 is their fifth appearance in the finals in a row. On all four previous occasions they have bowed out in the Round of 16.
· Under Javier Aguirre, Mexico went an impressive 12 games without defeat before losing 2-1 to Colombia in a friendly, a game in which they used only home-based players.
· The Mexico squad that earned qualification for South Africa 2010 contained four players who won the FIFA U-17 World Cup Peru 2005: Giovani dos Santos, Carlos Vela, Efrain Juarez and Hector Moreno.
· Surprisingly, there were no Mexicans among the top 20 scorers in the CONCACAF qualifying competition, although no fewer than 18 Tricolor players found the back of the net at least once during the qualifiers.
WHAT THEY SAID
"I feel relaxed. Whenever you reach an objective you've been brought in to achieve you have the satisfaction of knowing that you haven't let down the people who put their faith in you. I am happy and proud. When I came into the job we were fifth and nine points away from first place, and now we're in the World Cup." Coach Javier Aguirre reacts to his side second-place finish in the CONCACAF Zone.