Charting Mexico's Weird Path to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

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Charting Mexico's Weird Path to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Eduardo Verdugo/Associated Press

Weirdness does not typically need affirmation.

But there it was—a nice, kooky bow pulling together a bizarrely shambolic qualifying campaign: U.S. midfielder Graham Zusi accepting a faux religious drawing of himself from a Mexican radio crew.

"San Zusi," it said. Yes, it featured a halo and the pope-ish hand gesture with the index finger and thumb just so. It looks like the kind of art you find at Sunday flea markets in Hubbardston, Massachusetts, right next to the black velvet painting of a weeping Elvis and the collection of butterfly knives.

The kitsch didn’t need an exclamation point, but it got one anyway. The Mexican radio guys decked Zusi out in a sombrero. This had the effect of emphasizing his gringo-ness, which I suppose was the point. Apparently, someone left the fake mustache at the hotel.

At the risk of saying something obvious, the scene was superfluous; this was already the strangest campaign for a Mexican national side in recent memory and it didn’t even involve hookers.

The Mexican Football Federation went through four managers. The team failed to beat teams it should have and, even worse, it dropped points at the Azteca—something that rarely happens. It was a fever dream of delusion and incompetence. The success of its youthful, gold-medal-winning Olympic side in London was reduced to a haunting memory.

There was no time for talk of a bright future for Mexican football; this sustained crisis was very much grounded in the present. The Mexican football press brooded, disparaged and condemned. Rafa Marquez was successfully exhumed.

The strange was ubiquitous; canonizing a midfielder from central Florida made sense.

Recently, El Tri have been playing with verve not seen in qualifying. During their recent friendlies, they swaggered to a 3-0 win over Israel and a 3-1 win over Ecuador; while they did lose to Bosnia-Herzegovina 1-0, they had plenty of possession and chances.

They were feckless for stretches during their last friendly, a 1-0 loss to a Ronaldo-less Portugal on Friday, but they should still be expected to advance from Group A. Mexico has somehow managed to relegate its worst modern qualifying campaign to a distant memory by playing well in a handful of friendlies and thrashing a team from Oceania (Oceania!) when it counted.

On October 15 in Costa Rica, when Zusi’s stoppage time goal drew the U.S. level with Panama. If Panama won, it advanced to a playoff against New Zealand. Mexico would be left to sulk at home.

The U.S. would go on to win 3-2 and Mexico, despite its loss to the Costa Ricans in San Jose, would advance to the World Cup playoff. Hence, San Zusi. Weirdness affirmed. Mexico is in the World Cup.

This result, in itself, is not weird or at least has not been weird and should not be weird. El Tri are expected to be here every four years. They have made every World Cup since 1990, and that year the team was disqualified from the tournament for fielding overaged players in the 1989 World Youth Championship qualifying round.

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El Tri’s fingers were being pried off the World Cup precipice. They were losing. They have reached the round of 16 in the last five World Cups. Only Germany and Brazil can match that record. They have produced sublime moments. They have produced heartbreaking moments. They are World Cup constants. They probably shouldn’t be in Brazil.

Mexico won twice, drew five times and lost three in the so-called CONCACAF hexagonal qualifying round. It took 11 out of a possible 30 points and had a minus-two goal differential.

By contrast, in Africa, Egypt won all of its six games in its qualifying group before being dismantled by Ghana in Kumasi, 6-1 during the first leg of its playoff that effectively sealed its fate. That one loss ended its World Cup hopes.

Teams are not supposed to be able to play as poorly as Mexico and still qualify.

Some of the lowlights: In late March of last year, the U.S. drew with El Tri 0-0, marking only the second time the Yanks had emerged from Mexico with points in the team's World Cup qualifying history. It got worse that September, when Honduras beat the Mexicans 2-1. That was the first home defeat for Mexico in a World Cup qualifier for 12 years.

Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press

El Tri’s savior came in the form of manager Miguel Herrera, a man who looks like a washing-machine salesman and is known for losing his stuff on the sideline.

He’s coming off recent success with Mexico City’s Club America, which won Liga MX in May 2013. Under Herrera—the fourth manager of the qualifying campaign—the team cruised in the two-legged playoff against New Zealand, winning 9-3 on aggregate. He now has the team playing well.

Depending on whom Herrera selects, the defense could look downright geriatric. The much-maligned Marquez is 35, Francisco Rodriguez is 32 and Carlos Salcido is 34. Pace could trouble such a trio.

Herrera prefers a 3-5-2 formation, with wing-backs surging forward often. The midfield is internationally inexperienced. As of May 19, no midfielder on the 23-man Brazil-bound roster had more than a dozen caps. Luis Montes’ broken leg won’t help El Tri’s midfield depth.

Javier Hernandez, who is coming off a frustrating season with Manchester United, will lead the attack. The talented and enigmatic forward Giovani dos Santos has been his usual mercurial self this year for Villareal.

Oribe Peralta could also feature prominently; the Club America striker has hit a purple patch of form for the national team recently, scoring five of the nine goals in El Tri’s two-legged demolition of New Zealand.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The team has survived a tumult. Will the lack of management continuity matter? Herrera doesn’t seem to think so; he’s now talking about making the final. This, after playing exactly two games that mattered against a vastly inferior opponent. A more realistic goal for Mexico would be to simply make it out of its group, which includes the hosts, Cameroon and Croatia.

Herrera has suggested that the rocky qualifying campaign may actually help his squad. Teams, he told AFP (via Yahoo), might underestimate them now.

Time will tell. They play their opening game against Cameroon on June 13. San Zusi won’t be around.

 

Danny has been a journalist for eight years. He mostly covers organized crime, drug policy and politics, but once owned an Alexi Lalas poster. Born and bred in Massachusetts, he now lives and works in Bermuda. Follow him @DMacCash.

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