Mexico fights on, eyes South Africa
In its most trying year since 2001, Mexico survived and came out stronger at the end because of it. By the midway point of the CONCACAF Hexagonal, El Tri had lost three World Cup qualifiers and fired its coach as panic was entrenched in the country. But Mexico went 4-0-1 down the stretch and wound up qualifying with relative ease after all was said and done.
And while the Hexagonal is now in the books and Mexico's focus is on the 2010 World Cup, there are some lessons learned throughout the 10-match odyssey that could help El Tri avoid some mistakes that threatened at one time to cost it the chance to play in South Africa:
Mexico's so-called "Golden Generation," the unfortunate pressure-filled name slapped on its 2005 Under-17 squad, had an impact on qualifying as several players have arrived on the scene.
Three others from the '05 squad also saw playing time during qualifying but none had a big impact.
Maybe the '05 U-17 squad won't be the backbone of the national team many had hoped for, but some elements of that team will be able to try and replicate some of their success on the global stage once more.
After all, 36-year-olds aren't supposed to step into a high-paced international match and deliver immediately but that's what Blanco did. He turned back the clock to '01, when he performed similar acts of magic and helped lead that year's struggling Tri squad to the '02 World Cup. Blanco didn't earn Mexican fans' love by helping El Tri reach South Africa -- he won them over years ago. But he did present some strong arguments for being the best Mexican player ever, if he isn't already.
But Aguirre tapped into the great depth Mexico has -- the best in CONCACAF -- and the team didn't miss the talent and experience of the absent players. In fact, Aguirre took it several steps further by reaching not only for young and upcoming players, but also to veterans who were deemed past their prime.
Mexico, of course, isn't immune to injury and may lose a player or two along the way to the World Cup. But even in the worst scenario, it will still be able to field a strong, talented and competitive squad.
Sitting in fifth place after four World Cup qualifying games, Mexico wasn't in the best position. But when the four teams in front are all CONCACAF teams, things were never as bad as they could have been. Climbing out of such a position in CONMEBOL or UEFA would be next to impossible, but CONCACAF's light competition helped get El Tri back on track.
Nobody in CONCACAF is still good enough to win in Estadio Azteca. While it's the biggest home-field advantage in the region, consider this: The last South American team to play in Azteca won, as Paraguay beat Mexico 1-0 in a friendly in '07.
As evidenced by some of the caliber of teams who will not play in the World Cup -- Sweden, Czech Republic, Croatia and Ecuador are all out -- the margin for error in CONCACAF is not anywhere near the razor-thin line other teams face elsewhere in the world. Geography is and continues to be on Mexico's side.