Eight months ago, Mexico looked set for one of the greatest humiliations in the country’s soccer history. Now they are riding a Latin American wave at the World Cup.
A disastrous qualification campaign put them on the brink of elimination. However, as they ended a 2-1 defeat away to Costa Rica in their final CONCACAF qualifier, they received a lifeline from the unlikeliest of sources.
Two goals in stoppage time by the already qualified US away to Panama handed the Mexicans a second chance through a playoff against New Zealand, despite having won just twice in 10 qualifiers.
Now Mexico can reach the World Cup quarter-finals on foreign soil for the first time with victory over the Netherlands tomorrow. Mexico have already come through a tough group against World Cup favorites Brazil, as well as Croatia and Cameroon.
Much of the turnaround is thanks to Miguel Herrera. The 46-year-old coach became Mexico’s fourth boss of the qualifying campaign when he took over for the two-match playoff against New Zealand. His controversial decision to use only home-based players was emphatically rewarded with a 9-3 aggregate win.
Since then, Herrera has blended in Mexico’s stars from foreign leagues such as Giovani dos Santos, Javier Hernandez and goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who shone as he kept Neymar and company at bay in a 0-0 draw with Brazil in Fortaleza.
The squad in Brazil also contains 10 of the under-23 side who won the 2012 London Olympics gold, beating a Brazil side containing Neymar and Hulk in the final. Rafael Marquez provides the experience as he set a record by captaining his country at a fourth World Cup.
So impressive has Herrera’s leadership of the team been that the Mexican soccer federation wants to extend his contract until the 2018 World Cup, regardless of the outcome against the Netherlands.
“I am delighted that people now talk about how he is as a person, but also his work,” Marquez said of Herrera. “For me it would be great if he continued, but right now we need to stay focused on what is coming up.”
Mexico have conceded just one goal in three games in Brazil, but Marquez is aware of the challenge posed by the Netherlands, who have scored more than anyone else in the competition with 10 goals from their three group games.
“It will be very difficult, but we have not sat back and tried to keep the score at 0-0 against any team we have faced so far,” Marquez said.
Yet, in a World Cup dominated by the Americas at the expense of traditional European powers, Mexico might never have a better chance to go to the last eight and beyond.
The elimination of world champions Spain, England and Italy has opened up the draw massively for Mexico, with a potential quarter-final against Costa Rica or Greece an enticing prospect for Herrera’s history chasers.