México has never won a World Cup. In fact, they have never been particularly close, having done no better than the quarterfinal appearances they made in 1970 and 1986. Bowing out at the Round of 8 means you're three wins short of raising the World Cup, shockingly distant for a nation which, along with the Netherlands, may be the most surprising name on the list of countries that have never won the title.
Just over one year ago (March 2009), El Tri appeared to be moving farther from that elusive world title. Sven-Goran Eriksson had barely gotten the team through the third round of CONCACAF qualifying, edging out Jamaica by goal-difference to make the confederation's final qualifying round. Once there, Mexico lost two of their first three matches and had to end the Eriksson experiment (lest they miss-out on another World Cup). While the hypothesis driving that experiment - that Mexican football needed to change in order to keep pace with the United States - was disproven, the national team was worse-off for having made the point.
In a subtle irony, Mexico moved forward by turning back, hiring Javier Aguirre to resurrect El Tri. In Aguirre's 2001-02 spell running the national team, he guided Mexico to the final of Copa América and into the knock-out stages of the 2002 World Cup. After that tournament, he started a long tenure in Spain's Primera Division, a tenure that ended one month before Eriksson's dismissal. Had Aguirre not been available, Eriksson many have gotten more time with Mexico, but when El Vasco became willing to come on board, El Tri's fortunes reversed.
Three months after Aguirre was appointed, Mexico won the CONCACAF Gold Cup, beating the United States on U.S. soil for the first time in ten years. After another three months, Aguirre had Mexico qualified with room to spare, sealing their space in South Africa before the fourth round's final match. To do so, Aguirre turned his back on many of the naturalized players Eriksson'd brought-in and, in the process, Eriksson himself.
Aguirre's return and success breeds a new hypothesis: that there was never anything wrong with Mexican football. While they no longer dominate CONCACAF, their success since the summer of 2009 - success driven by a dos Santos, Vela-led generation of young talent - hints Mexico may be stronger than ever. The fluidity, skill, and passion have all returned to Mexican football, as has the swagger.
Now, drawn into a World Cup group that is there for the taking, Aguirre may have El Tri on the doorstep of another quarterfinal run - if not more.
How They Got Here
Mexico would ultimately finish second in CONCACAF, but it bares reiterating: Mexico was almost out before the final round of qualifying. They finished with the same number of points in third round qualifying as Jamaica, and while they were seemingly in control going into the sixth and final match, the final table is telling. Honduras finished above Mexico. Jamaica had the same number of points. It's not a standing we normally associate with Mexico.
After Eriksson was dismissed, El Tri stumbled in their first match under Aguirre, losing to El Salvador. The team would then win their next five qualifiers, including a 3-0 result in at Estadio Saprissa against Costa Rica - a notoriously difficult environment (where the United States had lost, 3-1).
While their qualifying campaign was uneven, Mexico has been the best team in their region for the last year.
Players To Watch
Giovani dos Santos has been the region's best international since Aguirre came back. Though he has struggled to make an impact at club level, Gio has put in decisive performances for El Tri, where he is complemented by fellow attacking prospects Carlos Vela and Javier Hernández.
Gerardo Torrado may be Mexico's most important player - the midfield fulcrum around which the set-up is built. The formations Aguirre will use will vary based on opponent, but at the center of each will be the Cruz Azul star.
Guillermo Ochoa is on the verge of making the jump to Europe, but for now, Memo is the most recognizable face from the Mexican league. His taking the starting goalkeeper's position was one of the keys to Mexico's turnaround.
How Far They Can Get
When you sketch out the bracket you see Mexico could match-up with a series of teams against whom they would have decisive advantages through the midfield. The luck of that draw could see Mexico reach their first semifinal.
|June 11||South Africa||Johannesburg|
|Michael, Luis Ernesto||30||4||0||Guadalajara (Mexico)|
|Ochoa, Guillermo||24||37||0||America (Mexico)|
|Aguilar, Paul||24||10||2||Pachuca (Mexico)|
|Juarez, Efrain||22||18||0||UNAM (Meico)|
|Magallon, Jonny||28||52||3||Guadalajara (Mexico)|
|Marquez, Rafael||31||91||10||Barcelona (Spain)|
|Moreno, Hector||22||10||0||AZ (Netherlands)|
|Nilo, Jorge Torres||22||8||0||UANL (Mexico)|
|Rodriguez, Francisco Javier||28||47||1||PSV (Netherlands)|
|Salcido, Carlos||30||73||6||PSV (Netherlands)|
|Castro, Israel||29||31||1||UNAM (Mexico)|
|Guardado, Andres||23||56||8||Deportivo La Coruna|
|Torrado, Gerardo||31||114||6||Cruz Azul (Mexico)|
|Barrera, Pablo||22||21||3||UNAM (Mexico)|
|Bautista, Adolfo||31||37||11||Guadalajara (Mexico)|
|Blanco, Cuauhtemoc||37||118||38||Veracruz (Mexico)|
|dos Santos, Giovani||21||26||5||Tottenham Hotspur (England)|
|Hernandez, Javier||22||12||7||Guadalajara (Mexico)|
|Medina, Alberto||27||56||6||Guadalajara (Mexico)|
|Vela, Carlos||21||28||9||Arsenal (England)|
Mexico World Cup Team Data Card
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