Mexico will seek to put their nightmarish World Cup qualifying campaign behind them today when they host New Zealand in the first leg of a last-chance intercontinental playoff.
Mexico are usually overwhelming favorites against smaller nations such as the All Whites at their imposing, 105,000-capacity Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, but El Tri won just once in five home games in the final qualifying round of North, Central America and Caribbean qualifying, finishing fourth out of six teams.
While the US, Costa Rica and Honduras won direct tickets to Brazil next year, Mexico barely secured the playoff — a surprisingly poor showing for a powerhouse that was last absent from a World Cup in 1990.
The dismal results led the soccer federation to sack three managers in six weeks, finally handing the reins to Miguel Herrera last month for the two-game playoff.
The outspoken manager, who led Club America to a domestic title this year, voiced confidence that his squad can win the return leg in New Zealand on Wednesday next week as well as today’s home tie.
“The first thing we said was that we shouldn’t think about what happened in the past, because that’s something we can’t resolve,” Herrera said. “We are going to win in Mexico and we will also seek to win over there [in New Zealand].”
Fans have turned on their team, with 60 percent saying in a poll last month that Mexico do not deserve to qualify. Experts have warned that missing the World Cup would cost sponsors and broadcasters more than US$600 million.
Herrera has shaken things up since taking over, calling up only players from the domestic league, while leaving out European-based stars, including Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez and Villarreal’s Giovani dos Santos.
He said Mexico would seek to exploit New Zealand’s loss of captain Winston Reid, who was ruled out of the playoff with an ankle injury suffered playing for English Premier League club West Ham United, but New Zealand striker Rory Fallon said the All Whites’ familiarity with the intercontinental playoff system could be to their advantage.
Fallon famously scored the goal against Bahrain in the second leg of their playoff that sent New Zealand to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
This time, though, the All Whites face a much stronger side that played in 14 of the past 19 World Cups. New Zealand have appeared in only two World Cup finals — Spain in 1982 and South Africa in 2010.
“Nobody in the world would have anticipated having Mexico in a playoff. We certainly didn’t,” New Zealand manager Ricki Herbert said.
Herbert said he thought today’s match would be “one of the hardest, if not the hardest” New Zealand have ever faced.