Group A: Mexico
They passed pretty patterns ariound Capello's England in a friendly Ã¢ÂÂ but, says Jamie Trecker, Mexico are fortunate to be involved...
Mexico enter their fifth straight World Cup finals re-energised, and darn lucky. A dismal run of form under ex-coach Sven Goran-Eriksson almost saw the Tricolores locked out of South Africa, but under his replacement, Javier Aguirre, Mexico were able to steady the ship.
Yet this escape highlights how far the proud Mexicans have fallen. Once the undisputed kings of CONCACAF, in recent years the Mexicans have found themselves playing second fiddle to their bigger and bitter rivals to the North. It's difficult to fully express just how humiliating this is for Mexicans, whose national identity is closely intertwined with their national sport.
In fact, from 1999 until last summer, Mexico had failed to beat their rivals on American soil, creating an enormous psychological hurdle for the team. That was finally overcome when Mexico trashed USAÃ¢ÂÂs B squad 5-0 in the Gold Cup finals. The relief was palpable; post-game, striker Carlos Vela told Mexican television that Ã¢ÂÂit was about time [we] won a game here in AmericaÃ¢ÂÂ.
Aguirre got the job done by relying on a core group of older players Ã¢ÂÂ particularly the 37-year-old Cuauhtemoc Blanco Ã¢ÂÂ and it got the team to South Africa, right enough. How that same group will fare this summer is another matter entirely.
The Mexicans are technically gifted and nimble. When firing on all cylinders they can hurt you with a counter-attack that relies on teasing flank play and raw speed.
Despite appearances in the Wembley friendly, their defence can be stingy, and with good reason: like the Italians, they can absorb and absorb, at times putting all 11 guys behind the ball. They have a history of spectacular goalkeepers and very tough-nosed midfielders. Which leads us to...
They foul early and often, and can be downright dirty. Refs take notice of this, and Mexico usually pay a stiff price. Also, the old saw about Mexicans not travelling well is true: currently, only Rafa Marquez and Blanco have a strong overseas track record Ã¢ÂÂ and BlancoÃ¢ÂÂs was in MLS, hardly a top-calibre league. The fact that this has become a point of pride for Mexican fans, who delight in having their best players at home, is perverse.
This insularity and lack of familiarity with foreign teams and players hurts Mexico on the world stage, and they struggle against European and African sides. In 2006, they barely squeaked into the knockout stage on four points in a very weak group. That noted, when paired against Argentina, they let it all hang out Ã¢ÂÂ and more than matched the Albicelestes before losing in extra-time.
Mexico play most of their games in the United States. Why? Money: the Mexican immigrants in the US fill the StatesÃ¢ÂÂ cavernous football arenas and pay top dollar.
The Coach: Javier Aguirre
Ã¢ÂÂ¨Nicknamed Ã¢ÂÂEl VascoÃ¢ÂÂ (The Basque), the former Atletico Madrid coach is something of a minor deity in Mexico. A two-time coach for the national team, he is widely credited with twice-reviving their World Cup qualification fortunes. That halo will last right up until Mexico crash out of the cup, at which point heÃ¢ÂÂll become just like every other coach in the notoriously fickle country: fired.
Key Player: Carlos Vela
The slight striker hasnÃ¢ÂÂt been more than a bit-part player for Arsenal, but he could be the key for a team that relies heavily on the ageing Blanco for firepower.
Probable team (4-2-3-1): Ochoa; Osorio, Marquez, Magallon, Salcido; Torrado, Guardado; Vela, Blanco, Dos Santos; Franco
South Africa, June 11, 3pm, Johannesburg
France, June 17, 7.30pm, Polokwane
Uruguay, June 22, 3pm, Rustenburg
Qualified Runners-up in CONCACAF Final Stage
USA (H) 2-0
Costa Rica (H) 2-0
Honduras (A) 1-3
El Salvador (A) 1-2
Trinidad & Tobago (H) 2-1
USA (H) 2-1
Costa Rica (A) 3-0
Honduras (H) 1-0
El Salvador (H) 4-1
Trinidad & Tobago (A) 2-2
World Cup record
1930 1st Round
1950 1st Round
1954 1st Round
1958 1st Round
1962 1st Round
1966 1st Round
1978 1st Round
1994 2nd Round
1998 2nd Round
2002 2nd Round
2006 2nd Round