Luis Bueno
Thursday March 26th, 2009

In 2001, Costa Rica pulled off the unthinkable. Los Ticos went into Mexico City's Estadio Azteca and walked away with a 2-1 World Cup qualifying victory. The so-called Aztecazo was one of the most important victories in Costa Rican history and still stands alone in CONCACAF as a monumental achievement.

That victory, however, was eight years ago. Plenty has changed in the regional footballing landscape since then. Players and coaches have come and gone. It's ancient history, and may as well be lumped in with early Mesoamerican civilizations. Right?

Not exactly. "It's very important," Costa Rican defender Gonzalo Segares told "That shows that it can be done, that they're not invincible. We're going to use that as motivation."

Eight years after pulling off possibly the greatest road victory in CONCACAF history, Costa Rica is hoping to do so again in Saturday's game against Mexico in the Azteca. Los Ticos won't be favored and probably won't be expected to win the qualifier, but they do have history on their side.

That remarkable victory in '01 wasn't the only time Costa Rica found success in the Azteca. In 1997, when Mexico was still the unquestioned king of CONCACAF, Costa Rica surprised the hosts with a 3-3 draw, which was followed shortly with then-Mexico coach Bora Milutinovic's removal. In its last three qualifiers at the Azteca, Costa Rica has a 1-1-1 record with five goals scored and six allowed. Those are pretty good numbers for any visitor to el Coloso de Santa Ursula.

Segares, though, said Costa Rica will enter Azteca with a great deal of respect. In fact, he summed up how it will feel in the stadium on Saturday with what's probably the most appropriate word: "Intimidating."

The Chicago Fire defender has never played in the Azteca. The closest he's been has been Querétaro, which is nowhere near the scene that will await him this weekend. He knows the details, about the conditions and everything else that favors the hosts, but won't truly know what it's like until he experiences it first-hand.

"It takes maximum effort to win there," Segares said. "The altitude will be an important factor for them."

Despite all of its challenges, however, Costa Rica may use the Azteca in its favor. Mexico is in its most desperate patch since Costa Rica last beat El Tricolor in the Azteca. Manager Sven-Göran Eriksson is far from secure in his position and very well could be unemployed in a week's time.

Mexico struggled just to reach the Hexagonal phase, having tied once and lost twice in its last three qualifiers. A 2-0 loss to the United States was a poor way for El Tri to kick off qualifying, and the scrutiny from the media has been intense, so much so that forward Nery Castillo nearly came to blows with a reporter on Wednesday. All that pent-up pressure may work against El Tri in its own fortress.

"Their fans will want a rout from the start," Segares said. "They are going to want Mexico to score right away. We just have to maintain our discipline, especially in the back, and turn their fans against them. If we keep the game scoreless, I'm certain that their fans will start to whistle and jeer them and we'll use that to our advantage."

Costa Rica faced Mexico in similar circumstances in '01. Then-Mexico coach Enrique Meza was under fire for a string of terrible results and poor showings, particularly in the Confederations Cup, where Mexico lost games to Australia, South Korea and France by a combined 8-1. Then, with a dismal amount fans in attendance -- a partisan crowd that featured thousands of Costa Ricans, no less -- Hernán Medford scored a goal four minutes from time as Costa Rica pulled off the stunning result. It was and remains the only time Mexico has lost a World Cup qualifying match at the Estadio Azteca.

History isn't the only thing Costa Rica has going for it. Los Ticos waltzed through the semifinal phase of qualifying with a 6-0-0 record, with 20 goals scored and three against, and opened the Hexagonal with a 2-0 win over Honduras. Coupled with their current form and the memory of the Aztecazo, Segares said his side is quite confident.

"I believe we're very motivated," he said. "[Head coach Rodrigo] Kenton has done well to have everyone highly motivated. As far as confidence, I believe the team has been doing everything well and we're going to go into Azteca in search of a victory."

The days of Mexico's dominance in the Azteca aren't exactly over. While the home team may have problems with recent results, form and pressure, the stadium is still a fortress few have breached. Paraguay beat Mexico there in '07, but no other CONCACAF team has been able to repeat Costa Rica's success. Los Ticos, though, are often seen as an afterthought when media and fans discuss the top team in CONCACAF. And that's OK with Segares.

"Little by little, you gain respect, and I believe we've been earning our respect bit by bit," he said. "Mexico and the U.S. are the strongest teams in the region and it's been like that for several years. They have earned their respect and we're just trying to do the same."

Another win in the Azteca would likely catapult Costa Rica's status in the region to even loftier heights. Times continue to change, after all.

"Undoubtedly it's not the same as before," Segares said, "when Mexico would just have its way with any team."

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