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Mexico begin their Copa America campaign tonight against Chile, shrouded by a series of scandals, but El Tri often produce their best football in such situations

FEATURE
By Martín del Palacio

In recent weeks, the Mexican national team have made headlines throughout the world. Doping and prostitutes are words that newspapers have repeated over and over again, but victories and entertainment are others. What any other team in the world would consider a crisis appears to be just business as usual for El Tri.

It all started on June 9, when the secretary of the Mexican Football Federation, Decio de Maria, announced, to the surprise of the whole country, that five players had tested positive for clenbuterol in an internal review carried out by the Federation before the Gold Cup. He also stated the suspected reason was that the players had eaten meat contaminated with the banned substance.

In Mexico, the fattening of cattle with clenbuterol is an illegal but common practice. A few weeks earlier, the German Anti-Doping Agency had warned their athletes about the danger posed in that respect when competing in the north American country. However, the Mexican sports media, which also relishes a scandal, quickly reached the conclusion that everyone was guilty. Half pointed their fingers at the players, the other half at the Federation itself.

The Mexican government, fearing public outcry, tried to distance itself. The Ministries of Agriculture and Health made a joint statement saying that Mexican meat was safe for human intake, while poultry producers claimed Mexican chicken didn’t contain clenbuterol. But a couple of days later, president Felipe Calderon said that he supported the players and believed in their innocence. Meanwhile, several news stories about contaminated meat started to appear in the media all over the country.


What crisis? | Mexico's players put the scandals behind them to win the Gold Cup

The players were separated from the team and immediately flew to Los Angeles to take a second test, which produced negative results. Gradually, the facts began to hint at the innocence of these footballers. WADA announced it would review its guidelines with regard to clenbuterol and Fifa secretary general Jerome Valcke stated that he was almost certain that it was an accident, and allowed Mexico to replace the players for the Gold Cup. Last Saturday, the press published the report of the case compiled by the Mexican Federation which highlights the players’ innocence.

So what about the team? Distracted by the scandal and with only 17 players to take part in the tournament, Mexico were expected to suffer in the Gold Cup. In fact, the opposite happened. El Tri waltzed through the first round, winning all three games, scoring 14 goals and conceding just one. In the quarter-finals and semi-finals they were less convincing, but finished the tournament brilliantly, beating arch-rivals United States 4-2 after recovering from a two-goal deficit early on.

Meanwhile, another Mexican national team was preparing to play a high-profile tournament. To maintain interest in their own Gold Cup, Concacaf forced Mexico to use their Under-22 team for the Copa America, the continent's most important tournament, organised by Conmebol. Thus, during those weeks, that team were finishing their preparations with a series of friendlies against South American sides.

“Distracted by the scandal and with only 17 players to take part in the tournament, Mexico were expected to suffer in the Gold Cup. In fact, the opposite happened.”  
                                
They couldn’t have got off to a worse start. A 0-3 defeat at home to Venezuela was followed by a poor showing in a 2-2 draw against Colombian club Independiente Medellin. But with time, the team gradually began to improve. A hard-fought 0-0 draw in Colombia was the prelude to their best game, a brilliant 1-0 win in Ecuador. A narrow win against Bolivia was the last result before the tournament, and suddenly it seemed the young Mexican team could hope to be more than a sideshow in the prestigious South American showpiece.

But then came another scandal. In an interview with ESPN following footballer's complaints about items stolen from their rooms, the hotel manager where the team had stayed in Ecuador reported that four prostitutes had spent the night with the players after the win against the local side. The press called for the head of the culprits and the Federation duly complied. The eight footballers who participated in the party were sent back to Mexico. Their replacements? Four players from the U20 side and four more who were originally considered surplus to requirements and cut from the squad before the final list was announced.

Thus, Mexico face one of the world's toughest tournaments with an Under-22 side, and an alternative one at that. And tonight they play their first match against a Chilean team that impressed in the 2010 World Cup, features international stars such as Humberto Suazo and Alexis Sanchez, and who are almost 5/1 favourites with bookmakers to win the match.

“Except for Italy, no other team have reacted so favourably to scandals as the Tricolor. And nobody else have as much experience.”  
                          
And yet, any prospective gamblers should think twice before betting against Mexico. With the exception of Italy, no other team have reacted so favourably to scandals as El Tri. And nobody else have as much experience. Before each tournament, for some reason or another, there has always been a crisis, and every time they have responded by playing their best football.

In 1993, before competing in the Copa America for the first time, the Mexican players threatened not to play the tournament if the Federation refused to change the system of transfers in the Mexican First Division, which they considered “slavery”. Their participation was in doubt for several days, but the parties eventually agreed to a deal. The team travelled to Ecuador and surprised the continent by reaching the final, losing a tight match against an Argentina side spearheaded by Gabriel Batistuta.

Six years later, a few days before the Copa America of 1999, two players, Raul Rodrigo Lara and Paulo Cesar Chavez, produced positive drugs tests. Mexico responded by finishing in third place and the players were acquitted. In 2005, before the Confederations Cup, two more, Salvador Carmona and Aaron Galindo, were also suspended for the same reasons. And once again, El Tri impressed in the tournament, defeating Brazil, drawing with Argentina and losing to hosts Germany in a 4-3 thriller. Then there was the Gold Cup, another triumph in adversity.

Another recent scandal occurred in September 2010, when two players were suspended and 11 fined after a party with prostitutes in Monterrey, in northern Mexico. And given the team's record following such events, former coach Javier Aguirre will only be sorry it happened after the World Cup and not before it. Otherwise, the team may have produced a historic performance in South Africa.

In all of the cases, the plot has been the same: a 'bomb' a few days before the tournament, then outrage among press and fans, a general fear of ridicule and finally, a big success. So what may be considered a crisis for any other side in the world is actually just another normal day in the life of the Mexican national team.

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