How Mexico turned it around
Rewind to the last day of CONCACAF qualifying for Brazil 2014, on October 15, 2013.
Mexico are behind 2-1 late in the second half against Costa Rica, whose fans are naturally lapping up the chance to put the CONCACAF giant out of the World Cup. There's only one goal in it, but the Mexico team are bereft of ideas, sapped of energy and seemingly clueless about how to pull level. Back home, the nation's mood turns from desperation and disbelief to an anger born from the acceptance that the team simply hadn't done enough to deserve to go to Brazil 2014.
Five hundred miles from San Jose, celebrations were already underway in Panama City after Luis Tejada gave the home side a 2-1 lead over the United States in the 83rd minute to leapfrog the Central American nation over Mexico and into the inter-continental playoff on goal difference. Step up Graham Zusi in the 92nd minute to head an equaliser in for the United States and silence the Panamanian locals.
The rest, as they say, is history. Mexico breezed past New Zealand in the continental playoff to resume its normal business of qualifying for the World Cup.
From the ashes of those dark qualification days has risen a team that has somehow captivated the nation and instilled it with a real belief. The expectation and desire of fans was that the team would at least represent the country with dignity in Brazil. Now there is a wave of opinion this version of El Tri can cause an upset on Sunday against Netherlands and get through to a quarterfinal for the first time since 1986.
It's not easy to explain, but here are five reasons for the turnaround:
1. Miguel Herrera
Herrera came into the job last October with only a forward gear that bulldozed its way through obstacles and guaranteed qualification to Brazil 2014. He immediately implemented a blueprint of how he wanted the team to play, sought players who would fit it and guaranteed absolutely no one - with the notable exception of Rafa Marquez - a place in his squad.
Admittedly, it is easier to get players onside when a World Cup is around the corner, but Herrera convinced them of his ideas, and they have rewarded him back handsomely with performances on the field.
Herrera has treated players as adults, made decisions with his head not his heart (see the omission of Moises Munoz) and had an open mind in allowing Europe-based players such as Guillermo Ochoa and Giovani Dos Santos to win him over. He deserves credit for creating a strong unity in the group and is now one of the darling's of the World Cup with his wild, passionate celebrations.
2. Formation change
The more fluid 5-3-2 Herrera has brought in is based on Mexico's 2006 World Cup manager Ricardo La Volpe's philosophy. Herrera played under La Volpe at Atlante and is heavily influenced by the Argentine. It just seems to fit Mexico's players and emphasises the collective rather than the individual, which El Tri arguably doesn't possess.
Marquez, who is now understandably slower at 35, fits perfectly at the heart of the three center backs like in 2006, Francisco "Maza" Rodriguez has played the system under Herrera at Club America and the wingbacks Paul Aguilar and Miguel Layun are imported and slotted in directly from the same team.
Herrera has perhaps been fortunate to see Andres Guardado slip so easily into the left central midfield position, but he's put a template down that the players have to fit into. Previously, under Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre, it was the other way round. De la Torre was trying to get a formation to fit his players, the prime example being Giovani Dos Santos.
3. Unleashing the Olympic spirit
There were waves of criticism about there being a lack of on-field leadership in qualifying. Yes, Marquez has stepped in, but the Olympic success at London in 2012 was defined by getting together a collective that was full of camaraderie and willingness to work for each other to the extremes to achieve victory.
All of a sudden, that same spirit has been invoked in Mexico's World Cup squad. And it is a winning one that believes it can make history. As Herrera has pointed out, the vast majority of this squad has won at least one trophy, from the Olympic gold medal winners Hector Herrera and Diego Reyes, to the 2005 U-17 World Cup in Hector Moreno and Giovani Dos Santos to Liga MX title winners with Leon and America.
4. Europe-based players
When Mexico took on New Zealand, the major news on the squad announcement was that no Europe-based player was in it. Herrera said the travel and jet lag meant they'd be little use and that the domestic Liga MX players -- mainly from Club America -- would get the job done. As it turned out, they did and in some style. But it undoubtedly changed the atmosphere, and it was made very clear to the Europe-based players that their places in the big event couldn't be taken for granted. In Brazil, we've seen the revival of the national team careers of Ochoa, Guardado and Dos Santos.
5. Never as bad as qualifying suggested
Mexico sunk to new depths in qualifying. The full story has yet to come out, although there have been rumours about splits between the Europe-based legion and the rest.
The bottom line is that the players were performing so far below their average that it left fans scratching their heads as to why. The perception that Mexican players are inconsistent and don't adapt well strikes at a raw nerve in the domestic game, but case in points are Isaac Brizuela and Carlos Pena at present, who were both close to starting before losing form ahead of the World Cup. And if you need further proof, the name Efrain Juarez is all you need.
The other side of the coin is that maybe this set of players are not as good as they've shown at Brazil 2014 so far, that they are exceeding themselves. But judgment on that had better wait until after the round of 16 clash on Sunday against Netherlands.