In Mexico, one name stands head and shoulders above the rest – Claudio Suarez, the softly-spoken national team captain and holder of the world record for the number of international caps, currently 170 and counting.
Suarez, a modest and mild-mannered man, says: “I wasnaturally happy to break the record previously held by such great players as (Lothar) Matthaus, (Thomas) Ravelli and (Hossam) Hassan. But that was not my objective. It was more important that the public and national coach still consider me worthy of a place in the national side.”
The 33-year-old central defender began his career in the Pumas UNAM youth school, making his first appearance in the first team in 1989. He quickly established himself, winning the League title in 1991 and his first cap in a friendly against El Salvador in 1992. He has been a regular ever since.
Suarez helped Mexico win the CONCACAF Gold Cup, then missed the second half of 1993 through injury. He recovered in time for USA 94, when Mexico topped their opening group then lost to Bulgaria on penalties.
“We had two strikers on the bench, Hugo Sanchez and Carlos Hermosillo, when Luis Garcia was sent off. The Bulgarians were clearly exhausted but Miguel (Mejia Baron) did not make any changes.”
Suarez’s career took a turn for the better in 1996 when he signed for Mexico’s most popular team Guadalajara. “Those were happy days as I started making good money,” he recalls. “With Ricardo Ferreti as coach, we won the 1997 Summer League and I played better than ever.”
A succession of national coaches came and went – Mejia Baron, Bora Milutinovic, Manuel Lapuente, Enrique Meza – but Suarez remained.
He moved on to Monterrey club Tigres UNL in 2000, reuniting him with coach Ferreti. Now he aims to win a third League title before retiring.
First, though, remains the small matter of a third World Cup. “I’m looking forward to it,” says Suarez. “I dream of persuading the rest of the world that there is much more to Mexican soccer than the disappointing performances in the qualifiers.
“In France, we played a flexible 4-3-3 that became 3-4-3 when we attacked. With (Javier) Aguirre we are still playing with a zonal defence, but we have greater flexibility when going forward.
“Also, I now have alongside me a player, Rafael Marquez (of Monaco), who has acquired a lot of experience in European soccer.
“Plus we have young players like Ramon Morales, Johan Rodriguez, Alberto Rodriguez and Rafael Garcia.”
Are there any doubts? “It is up front where we need (Jared) Borgetti and (Antonio) De Nigris to perform as they have done in the League. There is also a question mark over Cuauhtemoc Blanco because of his injury history.
“But I’m confident that once the tournament starts, those young forwards will respond. Javier Aguirre is a no-nonsense coach and a good motivator.”
What kind of systems does he expect to see at the World Cup? “Well, the tendency is clear: no team can depend upon individual stars. Gone are the days when the Maradonas, Beckenbauers and Rivelinos carried the whole team on their shoulders. Today, fast play and quick thinking require concentration and teamwork, especially in defence.
“My job is to avoid the mistake of leaving open spaces to forwards like Gabriel Batistuta, mistakes that have cost us unjust defeats in the past.”
Club Tigres UNL
Born December 17, 1968
Previous clubs Pumas UNAM, Guadalajara
International debut 1992, v El Salvador
International caps 170 (7 goals)
Honours Gold Cup 1993; Mexican League 1991 (Pumas), 1997 (Guadalajara)