THREE MANAGERS, 42 PLAYERS AND LOTS OF SUFFERING. THAT WAS MEXICO'S BALANCE SHEET AFTER THE CONCACAF QUALIFYING TOURNAMENT. BUT THE PRELIMINARY GAMES ARE RARELY accurate predictors of how a team will do at the World Cup. If the qualifying run is a struggle against intimidated referees, pitches that resemble battlefields and fans who throw whatever they have at hand, then the World Cup itself is a crapshoot. One ref's mistake or a single injury can ruin everything; on the other hand, one lucky play or an opponent's lone blunder can carry a team further than it had hoped to go. But the proverbial champion's luck is not enough, and this year Mexico has the other ingredients needed for success: a balanced mix of veterans (Rafa Márquez, Gerardo Torrado, Cuauhtémoc Blanco), maturing younger players (Guillermo Ochoa, Andrés Guardado, Giovani Dos Santos, Carlos Vela) and talented neophytes who can add a jolt of electricity (Efraín Juárez, Javier Hernández). In addition, El Tri drew a relatively easy group: France, which is clearly in decline; Uruguay, which practically invites teams to attack it; and South Africa, which has only the home crowd in its favor.
In the past Mexico was hamstrung by a lack of confidence, so this year manager Javier Aguirre will press the attack in the tournament's opening match, perhaps even using three forwards if El Tri can't puncture South Africa's defense early on. And if Mexico gets three points against the hosts, half-assuring its passage to the second round, it will be in a position to win the group, making its life easier in the round of 16 and perhaps advancing from there to play a fifth match in the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
After trying out a half-dozen forwards, El Tri struck gold just in time for the global classic. Javier (Chicharito) Hernández, the 21-year-old striker for Guadalajara, kicked off the Mexican league's season with eight goals in his first five games. That got him invited to the last pre-World Cup friendlies, at which he was El Tri's leading scorer through the first four matches. But even though the entire country is thrilled with the most promising number 9 Mexico has produced in years, it remains to be seen whether Chicharito can duplicate his feats on soccer's biggest stage. He'll be joined up front by two other 21-year-olds: Dos Santos, whose play for the national side has improved steadily, and Vela, who won't start but will surely go in for the 37-year-old Blanco in the second half of matches. Meanwhile the inconsistent Nery Castillo, who'll turn 26 in South Africa, continues to be the great unknown factor in the Mexican offense.
This unit is one of the best Mexico has seen in decades. Torrado owns the center of the pitch, and to his left is Guardado, who has the tools to be one of the most disruptive midfielders opponents will meet in the World Cup. The one unknown will be Blanco, the former star of MLS's Chicago Fire. His leadership will be indispensable to Mexico, especially in the first game, but what kind of shape will he be in?
Ochoa patiently waited his turn and arrives at his first World Cup firmly in charge of the Mexican net. The keeper will not squander this opportunity, which should give him the entrée he's long wanted to European club football. In front of him will be three players who are household names in Mexico: Ricardo Osorio, Márquez and Carlos Salcido. And Juárez, a possible breakout player at this year's tournament, will add pace down the right flank. This back line should be able to handle the weak South African offense, the intermittent surges by Uruguay's forwards and the disorderly French attack. The only danger is that El Tri will push too far into enemy territory; the back line is relatively slow and vulnerable to counterattacks.
If Mexico isn't unnerved by the pressure of playing in the World Cup's opening game against the home team and defeats South Africa as logic says it should, Aguirre's team should take advantage of its mediocre group and become one of the tournament's breakout sides. If it gets off on the right foot, it can win Group A and reach the quarterfinals.