Mexico vs. South Africa, June 11, 2010.
The moment Mexico fell into the second slot of Group A, El Tricolor's toughest challenge in any of its recent World Cup groups became a reality. Mexico will open the first World Cup on African soil along with the host South Africans in roughly six months' time, and will follow up that unenviable opener with games against France and Uruguay.
And while El Tricolor has the necessary prerequisites for handling such an enormous task, plenty must go right from now until June to ensure that Mexico doesn't kick off South Africa 2010 on the wrong foot. Here's a quick check list for what Javier Aguirre's men must start preparing now:
Fortunately for Mexico, the players took the initial correct approach to their first and toughest task. After the reality of the situation settled down, Gerardo Torrado said it was an honor for Mexico to help usher in the next World Cup.
Mexico can ill afford to drop the opening match. Already, history is on South Africa's side, as no host nation has ever failed to advance past the first round. And while pundits have labeled South Africa as the weakest seeded nation and are a lightly regarded national team, the Bafana Bafana will benefit from massive support.
Overall, Mexico has a difficult group. With France waiting in the second match, a loss in the opener would set up a potentially all-or-nothing game against the French. And while France looked rather pedestrian during its own qualifying campaign, les Bleus have plenty of time to sort out their issues.
Uruguay is Mexico's final challenge, and while los Charruas are regarded as South America's weakest entry, they feature potentially dangerous strikers in Diego Forlán, Luis Suárez and former Mexican-league star Sebastián Abreu. How Mexico handles the opening match likely will determine how El Tri fares in the remaining of the group stage.
Interestingly, this is the third consecutive World Cup in which a CONCACAF team has drawn the host nation. In 2006, Costa Rica was slaughtered by Germany in the opener in a highly entertaining 5-2 match. In '02, the U.S. and South Korea tied 1-1 (the last World Cup, incidentally, that featured the defending champion in the opener instead of the host nation). In 1990, another CONCACAF nation played against the host as the U.S. lost to Italy 1-0.
Cuauhtémoc Blanco is a man of his word. So it should come as no surprise that the former Chicago Fire star honored a promise he made five years ago and has re-joined Veracruz after 2½ seasons in Major League Soccer (Blanco spent the Apertura '04 with los Tiburones on loan from Club América).
Still, it was a bit of a shock -- not just because of the timing (word of Blanco's move surfaced during the MLS playoffs), but also because Veracruz plays in Mexico's second division. Now, Blanco joins a league devoid of any world-class players -- or anyone near such a level -- where the propensity for injury seems high. And while some would argue this is exactly the type of league in which he spent the last three years, Blanco will be faced with these realities come January.
Playing is better than not playing at all, and thus playing with a second-division side is better than taking most, if not all, of January off, which would have been the case if Blanco had stayed in MLS. But playing in the World Cup is his most significant goal for in 2010. He'll be 37 by the first kick, and he needs to get there in one piece.
What's likely to happen is that Blanco's new Liga de Ascenso colleagues will be respectful towards El Tri's living legend and will show him such respect on the field. But all it will take is for one lesser-skilled player's mistimed tackle to damage Mexico's World Cup hopes.
Mexico relied heavily on 20-year-old Giovani dos Santos during its successful summer. He was the best player in the CONCACAF Gold Cup and continued his breakthrough performances in World Cup qualifying, scoring a goal and setting up two in a key 3-0 win at Costa Rica -- Mexico's most important win in the Hexagonal -- and drew a penalty which Blanco converted in a 1-0 win over Honduras. But dos Santos wasn't around for the last two games and is finally getting back to the field as an ankle injury robbed him of playing time.
Similarly, Carlos Vela has suffered through an injury-plagued summer. The 20-year-old wasn't available for much of the Gold Cup, nor several of the subsequent qualifiers due to injuries.
For Mexico's sake, though, the two youngsters need to hit the spring months in stride. Blanco is Mexico's most important player, but Mexico's hopes also lie with its talented young duo. If dos Santos and Vela are healthy and in form, Mexico's chances for success will be greater. If the two limp into June, El Tri will lose a valuable element to its attack.
Assuming the two players can get consistent playing time for Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, respectively, Mexico potentially could field three players who have honed their skills in the English Premier League -- Guille Franco is more than holding his own with West Ham.
Mexico could feature the Group A's most potent attack if all goes well during the remainder of the Premiership campaign.