When Sven-Göran Eriksson was appointed Mexico coach last year, the critics feared he would not have enough time to get to know the idiosyncrasies of the country's soccer or prepare himself for the difficulties of the region's World Cup qualifiers.
Jared Borgetti, the country's record international goal-scorer, said at the time: "It has to be someone who knows Mexican football, who knows the Mexican players, the lives of the Mexican players, and who knows the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, which are very different from Europe."
Nine months later and Borgetti appears to have been spot on. Eriksson has failed to rid Mexico of its inferiority complex when facing its archrival, the U.S., and, with his team reaching the fourth and final CONCACAF qualifying phase for South Africa only on goal difference, the 61-year-old has appeared perplexed by some of the goings-on around him.
His latest blow was a 2-0 defeat to the U.S. last month in wet and windy Columbus, Ohio, a venue chosen by the North Americans because it has one of the lowest concentrations of Mexican immigrants in the country.
The loss increased concerns that Mexico might not qualify for the World Cup -- something that last happened in 1982 when El Salvador and Honduras represented the region. It was also the fifth time in a row that Mexico failed to beat the U.S. and its 11th successive game without an away win against its neighbors.
It was all too familiar for Mexico as it went down a goal from a set piece, RafaelMárquez lost his temper and was sent off (as he was in the 2002 World Cup match which the U.S. also won 2-0), and keeper Oswaldo Sánchez was at fault for one of the goals. And then there was the scrap in the players' tunnel after the Mexicans accused the U.S. team of "over-celebrating."
Eriksson later got the dreaded vote of confidence from the national-team committee, which is headed by Chivas de Guadalajara owner Jorge Vergara -- the man behind his appointment.
"Sven cannot have his head on a guillotine," said Justino Compeán, president of the Mexican federation. "He has to work with confidence and we are giving it to him. We are not threatening him."
The current batch of qualifiers -- at home to Costa Rica (which Mexico won 2-0 on Saturday to ease some pressure on Eriksson) and away on Wednesday to Honduras, which has already beaten Mexico in an earlier stage of the competition -- is now vital. Failure could prompt the federation to change its mind -- a choice it might find more tempting now that former national-team coach Javier Aguirre has left Atlético Madrid.
Mexico made a good enough start under Eriksson, reeling off home victories against Honduras, Jamaica and Canada in its early qualifiers. But things went wrong on its travels. It was out-muscled by Jamaica in Kingston, held 2-2 by Canada in Edmonton and beaten 1-0 by Honduras in San Pedro Sula. Friendly defeats against Chile and Sweden have only worsened the situation.
It must be pointed out, however, that the Mexican national team is not an easy place to work. The federation is highly influenced by the Televisa and Azteca television networks, but there are also other interests at work.
"There will be ghosts who will try and bring him down," warned the respected columnist Héctor Huerta in a fascinating piece written shortly after Eriksson's appointment. "He doesn't have the blessing of a group of [club] owners who had other candidates, nor of the leadership of the players' agents in Mexico. ... They will put pressure on Eriksson to select their players by way of 'friendly' journalists. Neither does he have a group of trustworthy Mexican assistants who will clearly explain to him about Mexican players whom he doesn't know."
The Swede has also found himself in the middle of the row over naturalized players that came to a head when he picked four "foreigners" in his squad for a friendly against Sweden in February, calling up Argentina-born Matías Vuoso and Lucas Ayala, and Brazil-born Antonio "Sinha" Naelson and LeandroAugusto.
Even Guillermo Ochoa, Eriksson's own goalkeeper, questioned the choice. "It's a very delicate situation," Ochoa said. "There are a lot of Mexicans waiting for a chance in the national team and this makes it more and more difficult for them."
A bemused Eriksson replied: "I think that if they have quality and a Mexican passport, they have to be in the Mexican national team. Nobody told me this was prohibited. It's a little bit difficult for me to understand all this. If I don't select Vuoso or Naelson, they criticize me; if I pick Lucas Ayala, they criticize me."
Eriksson was equally baffled to find himself under fire for leaving out Cuauhtémoc Blanco, even though the fiery forward had announced his international retirement after winning what he claimed was his 100th cap at home to Canada (though FIFA said it was officially his 97th). Whatever the figure, he played for two minutes and still got booked for diving.
"I find it a little strange that a player says one day that he doesn't want to play in the national team for a number of reasons, then tells the media that he's available," Eriksson said.
If that is not enough, Eriksson has found himself short of international-class players and, against the U.S., he was forced to call up several forwards -- OmarBravo, Giovani dos Santos, Nery Castillo and Guillermo Franco -- who, for various reasons, had seen almost no recent action with their respective European clubs.
South Africa, it seems, is a very long way away.
This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of World Soccer magazine. To subscribe, click here.