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May 14, 2014

32 Teams in 32 Days: Mexico

Mexico endured a tumultuous World Cup qualifying campaign, but will be looking to shine in Brazil.


Group A | Brazil | Croatia | Cameroon


Team DNA

Manager Miguel Herrera's Mexico sides, at their best, are fast, free-flowing outfits that take the game to their opponent and pile forward quickly in numbers. A good reference point is the Mexico side at the 2006 World Cup, where Argentine Ricardo La Volpe -- one of Herrera's mentors -- was in charge of El Tri.

The default setting is attack, but Herrera is well aware of the need for balance; every player has to contribute defensively and in pressing the ball, from the strikers all the way back. A free No. 10 role is unthinkable in this Mexican side, partly explaining why there are so many doubts over the participation of Villarreal's Giovani Dos Santos.

The 5-3-2 system employed by Mexico is designed to swarm the opposition in the final third, with a key feature being both wing backs attacking at the same time. Even against Felipe Scolari's Brazil in El Tri's second Group A match, Mexico will seek to control the game and take the initiative.

Starting scenario

History

Mexico has failed to advance past the Round of 16 in each of the past five World Cups, but its best showings were two sixth-place finishes in 1970 and 1986.

How they reached Brazil

Mexico was dragged over the line by the benevolence of the United States, a wonder-goal from Raul Jimenez and the acquiescence of a poor New Zealand squad in the World Cup playoff.

The reality is that finishing fourth in the CONCACAF Hexagonal constitutes a disaster for a nation with the resources Mexico has at its disposal compared to its neighbors and the huge boost that playing home games in a 100,000-capacity Estadio Azteca at altitude hands El Tri.

Had the United States, who had already qualified, not scored in second-half injury time against Panama in the last round of qualifying matches, Mexico wouldn't be in Brazil. The same can be said about Jimenez's acrobatic overhead kick from outside the penalty area to rescue the three points against Panama in the penultimate round of matches.

With hopes of an easy qualification very high in Mexico at the start of 2013 after a sustained period of success at the youth level (capped by an Olympic gold medal in 2012), things turned especially ugly following September's 2-1 home loss against Honduras. Jose Manuel de la Torre was forced out, and three other coaches took the reins in just less than two months.

The numbers never lie

Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:

Key battles

Defeating Brazil in the group stage on June 17 in Fortaleza would be a historic event for a Mexico team that has been starved of big World Cup moments in recent times and provide a shock that would reverberate around the world.

And there is a genuine belief that Mexico can get a result against a nation whose style might suit El Tri. Over the past 10 years and seven matches between the two teams, Mexico has won three times, Brazil four, but that doesn't include the Olympic final against a number of Brazilians who will be in Fortaleza.

Brazil might be Mexico's second-favorite team ever since Pele & Co.'s heroics in Mexico in 1970, but defeating them would be exactly the injection of belief the team needs.

Herrera is certainly confident.

"We spoke with 'Felipao,' and he said Mexico for them is like a stone in their shoe," Herrera said back in February. "We're hoping to be like a rock, not a stone."

Most important player

Rafa Marquez is set to become the first player in the history of the game to captain his country at four different World Cups.
Rafa Marquez is set to become the first player in the history of the game to captain his country at four different World Cups.

Rafa Marquez has been through more twists and turns over the past four years than most, but after not playing for the national team in the majority of that time, he is now set to become the first player in the history of the game to captain his country at four different World Cups.

Herrera has made Marquez the undisputed leader, captain, first name on the team sheet and the player charged with organizing the defense.

How Marquez performs will have a large bearing on Mexico's success, with the former Barcelona and current Leon captain still oozing class in possession with his precise passing and vision. But he could potentially be a liability due to his lack of pace and penchant for moments of madness that have hindered his career, especially in Mexico and playing for El Tri.

It was a bold and brave decision to bring the 35-year-old back into the national-team fold. Only time will tell if it was the right one.

Definition of success

Herrera said he has designs to guide this team to the final, but the Mexican federation's stated goal of the quinto partido, or the quarterfinal, is much more realistic and dominates the thoughts of Mexico's fans and domestic media.

The fact Mexico has fallen in the Round of 16 stage in each of the past five World Cups dangles over El Tri and is etched onto the consciousness of Mexico as a footballing nation.

Video: Mexico odds in World Cup (Australia only)

For years, Mexico has been intent on making that jump from being a decent, non-dangerous side on the world stage to one that can do real damage; but, so goes the theory, it instead fails when the pressure is on and the quality of opposition higher. The series of Round of 16 exits only enhances that belief.

Winning the Olympic gold against a star-laden Brazil was supposed to break down that inferiority complex, although qualification gave plenty of reasons to think it has since been a case of one step forward, two steps back.

Negotiating a way out of a competitive Group A against Brazil, Cameroon and Croatia will be difficult enough; but even if Mexico can do it, either Netherlands, Spain or Chile will likely be waiting in the first knockout round.

How far will Mexico go?

Round of 16. The fact Herrera has been in charge since only late 2013, combined with Mexico's disastrous qualifying performance, mean it is illogical to expect anything more. Getting out of Group A would represent a good World Cup for this Mexico squad. Anything else would be a bonus.

ESPN FC Analysts' take: Kasey Keller

In the end, Mexico might see its poor qualifying as a blessing. After the U.S. men's national team's subpar 1998 World Cup, people took the U.S. for granted in 2002. Mexico might find itself in the same place. And when the going got tough, new players emerged: Midfielder Carlos Pena was strong, and striker Oribe Peralta scored an insane five goals in Mexico's two playoff games.

One question remains for Miguel Herrera: Can this team, in such a short period of time, put together some sort of team spirit? It's a lot to ask for, but, personally, I'm not one to write off Mexico.

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