Despite moving on to a playoff with New Zealand, El Tri is in a bad way and owes a debt to the United States.
El Tri was two minutes from finishing fifth in the CONCACAF Hexagonal and missing out on a World Cup for the first time since 1990. Then, with Mexico fans despairing, goals from Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson deep into injury time handed the United States a 3-2 win over Panama to rescue Mexico, who ran out of gas against Costa Rica and lost 2-1 on a rainy night in San Jose.
Cue cries of “USA, USA,” in bars and gatherings all around Mexico. Social networks in the country were flooded with El Tri fans thanking the United States.
The widely reported cost to the Mexican economy of missing out – which is still a possibility with a two-leg playoff against New Zealand to negotiate next month - would’ve been around $600 million, but the damage to the prestige of Mexican soccer, its league and its players is more difficult to put a figure on.
As sorry as you have to feel for Panama in coming so close to reaching the World Cup for the first time, such nights as Tuesday are what keep us all watching. This time, Mexico is the lucky beneficiary of an act of professionalism from a US side that continued to press Panama, but that should not gloss over just how low El Tri has sunk in this qualifying campaign.
While Victor Manuel Vucetich and Javier Hernandez stressed the positive side of Tuesday evening, Mexico making the playoff, it was left to outspoken veteran Rafa Marquez to sum up how most Mexico fans feel.
“The situation is lamentable, I hang my head in shame and it’s embarrassing for us to qualify (for the playoff) like that,” he stated in Estadio Nacional.
The teams that finished above Mexico in the Hex are ranked 13th, 33rd and 40th by FIFA. Those below are 35th and 78th. Yet El Tri won just two of 10 games in the Hex. The bottom line is that it is thanks to the generousness of FIFA that CONCACAF has 3.5 World Cup places and but for that Mexico would be out of the World Cup.
The lack of real drive in the final 15 minutes on Tuesday as Mexico attempted to get an equalizer against Costa Rica summed up the whole campaign. With time running out and when El Tri should’ve been besieging the Costa Rican goal, it was Los Ticos who looked more likely to score. It was another lackluster display.
But playing in San Jose last was always a difficult game. El Tri’s problem has largely been at home. One win and three goals in five matches at Estadio Azteca this Hexagonal is not good enough and any team would struggle from there.
That can be partly put down to a lack of creativity and fluency through the side and a lack of real identity and character in the team. The style and ideas that the players are going out onto the field with are loose at best and there hasn’t been the leadership on the field to drive the whole machine forward to win the three points without playing particularly well.
Off the field too, some responsibility must be taken in the organization of the Mexican game.
So much good that goes on in terms of youth structure and the quality of play in the Mexican league is negatively balanced out with things like Liga MX club owners having a major say in choosing national team coaches and, some allege, even in picking players.
That should at least be looked into seriously, as should the control Mexico’s two main television companies wield. Then there are the practices that take the domestic game back to the dark ages like the “Gentleman’s Pact” and relegated clubs simply buying out another franchise to stay in the first division.
Costa Rica’s Joel Campbell said earlier this week that the Mexican squad has a sense of arrogance when it comes to its CONCACAF rivals and that it looks down on them. Vucetich inferred in his pregame presser that the player might have been right on occasion.
There can be none of that now, with Mexico metaphorically going cap in hand to the United States to sort out its qualification issues on Tuesday.
Mexico should defeat New Zealand next month, but with the state of the side at present and the lack of confidence, seeing the colorful sombrero and fake-moustache wearing El Tri fans at Brazil 2014 is still far from guaranteed