RECIFE, Brazil -- In all the possibility of an empty stadium, Mexico took to the field. They were less than 24 hours from Monday's all-important group-stage match against Croatia, but they began their training by playing a children's game. Most of the Mexican players stood on the center circle; three were somehow nominated to occupy the middle. Then a ball came into the picture, and they kicked off a lighthearted session of Keep Away.
More than a method of grade-school torture, Keep Away is also a lesson in the art of the transfer -- not just of the ball but also of the responsibility, from offense to defense, from owner to chaser. At this level, it remains an easy exercise that belies a larger purpose. It is designed to improve a man's ability to shift.
At the same time, Miguel Herrera and Niko Kovac, the clever managers of these two teams, were playing their own children's game. They also did their best to demonstrate their knack for the relay, but instead of a ball, the object of their contest was pressure. And rather than trying to keep it, they were trying to pass it off to the other man. They were busy playing the World Cup of Hot Potato.
Kovac was more desperate about it. His team needs a win to advance; Mexico need only a draw. This is a significant difference. Yet he did everything short of saying that the game doesn't much matter. Kovac said that Croatia has a good young core that will be just as strong if not superior in four years. He said that his players are better when they are enjoying themselves, and he hopes that they will enjoy themselves during the match. He said that he is full of belief that his team will win, especially after its second-game rampage over Cameroon. "If I can't be optimistic now, when can I be optimistic?" he asked.
And then he talked about history and the weight of it. True, Croatia have not advanced out of the group stage since 1998. That only frees them from expectation! Poor Mexico, however, have advanced in each of the past five World Cups. Imagine if they should stumble and break that proud streak in Brazil? "If anybody's knees should tremble," Kovac said, "it should be theirs."
Over to Herrera. He looked, at his news conference, a little like a tourist on vacation. This might or might not have been an accident. In their questions, the Mexican media cast Kovac's remarks as disrespectful if not disparaging, even though he had conceded that the Mexicans are excellent. He said Croatia has the recipe to win, can you believe it? Herrera would not be flustered.
"You only have to be a cook to have recipes," he said with a sniff. Then it was his turn to join the great managerial game of deflection. Of course, his team was having a great time in Brazil; they work when they have to work, and they play when they have to play. They were looking forward to feeling at home in Recife, given the loud and enthusiastic support of their thousands of fans. And if that support occasionally included cries of an anti-gay slur, well, "That word is like a verb we use for everything in Mexico," he said. "It's not something that the fans do to offend." It's all just part of the fun!
The Mexicans were having so much fun that they had even invited their friends and families to the final training session. Don't forget, Herrera reminded everyone, including his players: A tie is good enough. "We have the advantage," Herrera said. Why not enjoy it? "The World Cup is a celebration of the 32 countries that made it to the party."
Nobody tell these apparently very relaxed teams that for one of them, the party is about to be over.