Mexico and the fifth game

Pique

Pique, the mascot for the 1986 Mexico World Cup. (It’s a jalapeño with a sombrero, in case you hadn’t noticed.)

By Ben de Buen

It wasn’t too long ago that Mexico was known as the Giant of CONCACAF. It could literally barge its way to World Cups with scandalous score lines over countries of little or nil football tradition. Regional tournaments were an opportunity to bully less fortunate neighbours (those countries known with some disrespect as banana republics) to bask in hierarchy even against the USA – a bully itself except for in an eleven-a-side showdown where their international powers were as good as useless.

Things have changed. Gone are the days of using St. Kitts and Nevis or Martinique to score eleven goals in one match, to set new FIFA records, and to feel what it’s like to be king, dictator and ruler of an entire region all at once. Gone are the days of centre-stage fights against a sparring partner. It finally happened, this reign was unmasked as a tyranny.

This November, Mexico will have to play New Zealand, the friendly giant of Oceania, for one of the few available tickets to Brazil 2014. This is the last of last opportunities for the dethroned and battered Mexicans who thought they would be able to cruise on the fumes of reputation to next year’s international competition.

It has always appeared that the tournament was designed to help Mexico cope with any number of mishaps in their path. There are three-and-a-half tickets for the region, which were disputed in the end between six countries. Mexico finished fourth behind Honduras, Costa Rica and the USA. They were fifth in the dying moments of the qualifying rounds (literally in the last minutes), losing to Costa Rica 2-1, and Panama leading the USA 2-1 when the American’s manifest destiny, and coach Jürgen Klinsmann’s German ethics displayed for Panama the meaning of ‘it ain’t over til the fat lady sings’. She sang with a 3-2 score for the stars and stripes shifting the final ladder in favour of Mexico that had simultaneously appeared to drown in a bit of tropical rain.

Despite being saved with one breath of life left, everyone is trying to find a culprit. Who can be crucified? Conspiracy theories are in the making, some say the Americans were paying Mexico for California and Texas, while others wondered if Carlos Slim, Mexican and wealthiest man in the world, had anything to do with this last minute resuscitation. Newspaper reports have broken down the list of the financial losses that an eventual elimination would represent for all the sponsors which range from major television networks to bread empires. The sum is between 600 million dollars to 1.4 billion.

Three coaches have been sacked in the process, one after playing only the last two qualifying matches. The latest solution was to call on Miguel Herrera, the league’s latest winning manager to head the floundering giants against the Kiwis. Thus far, nobody else has been beheaded; no one has accepted responsibility for this disaster. Club owners as well as the reigning bodies of Mexican Football have decided to play the game of thrones with the crowns on their heads and blind belief in their stature.

Mexico has attended most World Cups, more than the vast majority of countries in the world, and is the only one with that many attendances to never take the cup home. In recent history, they have only been absent from Spain ‘82 and Italy ‘90. The first elimination was blamed on some kind of Haitian voodoo curse (the qualifying tournament was held in Haiti in 1981) and the second one was due to FIFA sanctions after a local club sent older players to a youth tournament.

Mexico was also the first to host two World Cups (1970, 1986) and has always been on good terms with FIFA. It appears as though the reigning body is lenient with the former giants when it comes to enforcing multi-ownership laws, player transfer rights and has always favoured Mexican referees in top tournaments. At one stage, Televisa owned three first division teams while TV Azteca owned two. That was more than a quarter of the league. The transfer window in Mexico is held over two days at a five star beach resort where players are traded like merchandise. FIFA has warned FMF over this, yet still it takes place twice each year between seasons.

Who can deny that playing New Zealand is not slightly symbolic for Mexico? The kiwis are virtually ensured their half ticket every four years. They no longer have to play Australia who is now competing in Asia, and their remaining rivals are countries like New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands not necessarily known for their presence on the world stage. Before joining the AFC, Australia once beat American Samoa 31-0. Thirty-one nil! Even Mexico never scored that many goals. Meanwhile Costa Rica, Panama and Honduras, plus all those Caribbean islands that play their qualifiers on cricket ovals, don’t appear to be going away any time soon. They will no longer be intimidated by history.

Since 1994 Mexico has participated in World Cups with the sole purpose of returning to the fifth game. The last time the tricolor played a quarter final in the World Cup was against West Germany in Monterrey, during the 1986 edition, which they lost 1-4 on penalty kicks. In 2002 the USA evicted Mexico from the World Cup in what has been the most painful defeat in the nation’s history. With the fifth game stigma it’s not like anyone actually aspires to win the cup. But without the fifth game and without the narcissism of treating local rivals like beach balls in a seal stunt, football represents another shortage in a country that is known for political and economic failings. It wasn’t the results, but the sense of hierarchy that made it all worthwhile.

The main culprits of Mexico’s current situation are most likely in the offices of the Mexican Football Federation (FMF). They have promoted a league that rewards positive streaks over prolonged merit, allowed the purchase and relocation of newly promoted sides as a measure to maintain relegated football venues and created the conditions for overpriced and over paid foreign players to stem the growth of youth talent. None of these issues have been discussed as the matters that need to be addressed to recover the Hulk disguise. Instead they want to resurrect the giant on special effects. The FMF has implemented last minute measures and patch jobs in hope that qualifying for Brazil against New Zealand will help blur this mess into the past, and bring the fifth game into focus. The new coach has taken most of his former team (America from Mexico City) and dressed it green ahead of the upcoming playoff. He has even considered sidelining the “Europeans”, with names like Chicharito and dos Santos possibly falling from the final list, in a measure that appears to contradict the whole notion of national selection.

The All-Whites sound unknown enough to re-kindle Mexico’s lost sense of authority. The possibility of failure, considering recent results where rivals have been underestimated, is not yet considered. Still, more is said about the Haka than the actual rival.

To many Mexicans, New Zealand isn’t even a land of sheep. It is maybe a part of Australia or a distant and mountainous open-air studio for fantasy films and yes, special effects – the ones that make giants possible.