While the Mexican national team may have succeeded in qualifying, it may have too many deficiencies to deliver on fans' hopes.Another World Cup, another chance for Mexico to step up and finally break out from perennial underachiever to serious contender.
Despite the tortuous qualifying process, El Tri will begin Brazil 2014 with the same hope as ever.
The goal – as stated by the federation (FMF) and repeated ad nauseam in the domestic press – is the “quinto partido,” or quarterfinal. It has been the holy grail of Mexican soccer since it last occurred on home turf back in 1986.
A more realistic look Mexico at the World Cup suggests just getting out of a group containing Cameroon, Brazil and Croatia is a difficult task.
There is a hint of irony in the FMF promoting the hashtag #QuieroCreer (I want to believe) on social networks. There is a suggestion of doubt, of uncertainty. “I believe” would be much less tentative. It is, unintentionally, an honest portrayal of where Mexico fans are at. They want to believe and will support the team with the same passion and color as defines Mexico fans at any global tournament, but there is concern about just how good this team is.
Not that believer-in-chief Miguel Herrera has any doubts.
The Mexico coach has said repeatedly that the quarterfinal is just a minimum goal. He is planning his triumphant return to Mexico City after the final on July 13.
But while the hype in Mexico moves into overdrive, the reality is that Brazil 2014 is unlikely to be the World Cup in which El Tri steps up and makes a serious challenge in the latter stages of the tournament.
The team is a prisoner, once again, to a lack of stability from the top down.
The four-year process involved winning the Olympics, huge success at youth level and a very positive start after South Africa 2010 for the full national team, but was damaged by 2013, with El Tri suffering in qualifying, the Gold Cup and Confederations Cup.
The axe came down on Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre in early September and then on Luis Fernando Tena, followed by Victor Manuel Vucetich within weeks.
Up stepped the media-friendly Herrera and his radical changes that saw Europe-based players out of the New Zealand intercontinental playoff.
Since then, they have gradually been incorporated and Mexico will likely line up with eight players who have played or are playing in Europe.
But Herrera’s optimism can’t paper over the obvious cracks. Mexico is a team put together in a rush and with obvious deficiencies.
In defense, the speed of Rafa Marquez, Francisco Rodriguez and Hector Moreno is something opposition sides will look to take advantage of, as is the lack of height and strength Mexico possesses at defending set pieces.
There is also a lack of top-end quality, the likes of which Croatia – likely Mexico’s main challengers to get out of Group A - can boast with Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic, both of whom have featured regularly at elite European clubs in recent seasons.
Instead, Mexico’s strength lies in its work rate and ability to function as a unit, which has been damaged by the lack of preparation time Herrera has had with his squad.
Herrera himself is a question mark. His raw enthusiasm and relaxed attitude in dealing with the players – who he talks to on equal footing, with no sense that he is their boss – has worked in creating what appears to be a happy camp. But the former Club America coach still has the propensity to explode and is a bad loser.
If Mexico starts to unravel, the likes of Marquez, Javier Hernandez and Moreno may start to wonder about Herrera’s credentials and lack of experience at the very top level. Herrera isn’t Pep Guardiola, Alex Ferguson or Louis Van Gaal, for example.
On the positive side of things, El Tri possess players in Giovani Dos Santos, Oribe Peralta, Hector Herrera, Guillermo Ochoa and Miguel Layun that can step up and are primed to prove themselves at the world’s top level.
And Herrera is right when he says his squad is full of players that know how to win. The majority of the 23 are either 2005 U-17 world champions, Olympic champions, Marquez and/or Liga MX winners.
Overall though, the negatives and unknowns outweigh the reasons to be hopeful. It must be considered a success for Mexico if it repeats its performance at the last five World Cups and gets out of the group stage.
One of Spain, Netherlands or Chile (sorry, Australia) would then potentially await in the Round of 16 and would all be heavy favorites against El Tri.
That “quinto partido” will likely have to wait.