Ahead of his first true test, Mexico manager Miguel Herrera is exuding confidence. The fans, who would be devastated if Mexico missed the World Cup, aren't so sure.
MEXICO CITY - Mexico has spluttered along in 2013, forgetting the basics, lacking chemistry and running around the pitch at times like headless chickens.
Three coaches have come and gone as the Mexican managerial conveyor belt moves swiftly along, allowing little room for error.
Now comes the World Cup playoff first leg Wednesday, bringing an early judgment day for the newcomer to the hot-seat. Miguel Herrera's infectious personality and motivational skills have been brought in to get a sinking ship back on course, but, as New Zealand coach Ricki Herbert pointed out on Tuesday, he has no international experience.
With Herrera, there is no reverse gear, no room for doubt and he laid out his bold intentions early, casting aside Europe-based players like Javier Hernandez and Hector Moreno.
But, says Herrera, everything is on course and going to plan ahead of Wednesday’s showdown.
“I’m sure that we are going to win,” Herrera said in Tuesday’s news conference. “We are obliged to go after the game, take risks and score goals.”
It’s that kind of rhetoric that endears Herrera to fans and journalists alike, but bringing in players that are very inexperienced at international level, ditching the Europe-based players and introducing a 5-3-2 system are set to be career-defining decisions, for better or for worse.
It’s safe to say that if Mexico does make the World Cup and if Herrera is still manager, he’ll be getting a fair few column inches all over the world dedicated to his persona, especially those wild celebrations.
But while the bravado from the camp toes the Mexican federation’s line that missing the World Cup is not an option and may just be exactly what is required in terms of turning the page on a bitter last ten months, it can’t cover up the nervousness that exists in Mexico surrounding this game.
Herrera is almost the face of optimism. He hasn’t discussed not qualifying and neither has the federation, but the specter of not being at Brazil 2014 is certainly bubbling under the surface.
The newly formed Liga MX would suffer, the value of Mexican players in Europe would drop further and the commercial value of El Tri in both Mexico and the United States would be severely hit.
On a more mundane level, Mexicans are accustomed to the joy, celebrations and inevitable suffering the tournament brings to the nation.
A report in Central Deportiva Tuesday put the economic figure of not making Brazil 2014 at a $1 billion loss to the Mexican economy as a whole, but it would be the pride of a nation that has long had footballing ambitions of matching the American continent’s elite that would suffer the most.
The success at the Olympics just more than a year ago and the younger Under-20 and Under-17 triumphs would quickly be forgotten.
Fans are well aware what is at stake and many don’t share Herrera’s optimism.
“I hope we can win, but the way we have played recently, I don’t think we will,” said Marisa Ochoa, who was outside the Azteca Tuesday morning hoping, in vain, to be able to get a ticket. All 100,000 were sold out last week.
“I can’t imagine Mexico not being at a World Cup, it’d be awful,” she added.
Only 56 percent of Mexicans asked in a poll carried out by the Gabinete de Comunicacion Estrategica believe El Tri will qualify for the World Cup – a staggeringly low number considering Mexico is 24th in the FIFA rankings and New Zealand is down in 79th.
Mexico has qualified for every World Cup since 1982 – missing out on Italy 1990 due to player irregularities – and Herrera’s boisterousness (“We will be in Brazil 2014”) seems to be trying to cover up the real sense of fear that this could be the year.
Herbert was quick to capitalize on that in his press conference, stressing that all the pressure is on Mexico and that Herrera is obliged to say El Tri will win.
“If I was Herrera I'd be incredibly disappointed if Mexico doesn't win tomorrow,” was the experienced Kiwi coach’s retort.
A cold front is currently sweeping Mexico ahead of the game, and temperatures could be as low as 54 degrees Fahrenheit (12 Celsius) come game time, reducing the effects of the Mexico City heat.
On the pitch, Mexico will hope Herrera’s presence helps El Tri snap out of the tepid, error-strewn, nervous performances of 2013 and steamroll New Zealand with a couple of couple of early goals, before any doubts creep back in.