Victories over USA in the Gold Cup and World Cup qualifiers have given Mexico hope of reaching South Africa

By Martin Del Palacio Langer in Mexico City
When Jamaican referee Courtney Campbell whistled for the end of the World Cup qualifying match against USA, 110 million Mexicans could breathe a huge sigh of relief. The victory against their arch-rivals, the second in less than a month, meant survival in the final qualifying round on the road to South Africa 2010 but, above all, it allowed the football-crazy nation to watch their national team with pride for the first time in two years.

In a period that included four coaches, more than 50 players, defeats by Jamaica, Honduras and El Salvador, and an open war against the media, Mexico passed from being considered a candidate to be part of world football’s elite to a laughing stock among their neighbours, who were presented with the perfect opportunity to avenge past defeats against the fallen giants.

After the disastrous period of Sven Goran Eriksson, the beginning of the cycle of his successor, Javier Aguirre, could not have been worse. A 2-1 defeat in El Salvador and questionable personnel choices – such as calling up veteran 36-year-old goalkeeper Oscar Perez – ended the brief honeymoon between the coach and the volatile Mexican media.

Since then, the situation has turned 180 degrees. Aguirre called up a youth squad for the Gold Cup, a tournament that Mexico hadn’t won since 2003, and after a slow start – which included a three-match touchline ban for the coach after he kicked a Panama player – Mexico regained confidence with victories against Haiti and Costa Rica, and reached the Final against USA. Mexico hadn’t beaten their opponents away from home in 10 years, so fans and journalists feared the worse.

But the match, played in New York, ended up being a recital of attacking football by El Tri. After a goalless first half, the young Mexicans, led by the inspired Giovani Dos Santos of Tottenham, destroyed their arch-rivals, thrashing them 5-0 – the biggest-ever victory for Mexico on American soil – with the 20-year-old playmaker named the competition’s best player.

True barometer
With their first-choice squad resting following a successful campaign in the Confederations Cup, USA had fielded a weakened side in the Gold Cup. So the World Cup qualifier between the two teams in August, at the Azteca stadium, would be the true barometer of how far Aguirre’s team had really progressed.

It had been years since a football match had created so much expectation in the country. With nearly 110,000 supporters in the stands, and tens of millions more watching on television, Mexico rapidly recovered from being one goal down in the 9th minute and secured a dramatic, but deserved, 2-1 victory with an 82nd-minute winner scored by Miguel Sabah, one of the players that Aguirre gave a debut to in the Gold Cup.

In Mexico, defeating USA is a question of national pride and thousands of fans took to the streets to celebrate a victory that was about so much more than just football. But the road to the World Cup finals is still rocky. A defeat against group leaders Costa Rica in San Jose in September would probably mean Aguirre’s side will have to face a play-off against a South American team. An away victory, however, could almost put them on the plane to Africa.

A few months ago, nobody would have bet on Aguirre’s boys. Today, the fickle Mexican fans are confident that the team will leave Central America with their heads held high and they are already rubbing their hands at the prospect of seeing the generation of Dos Santos, Carlos Vela, Guillermo Ochoa and Andres Guardado making history in 2010.