Saturday, July 25, 2009

A Rivalry for Some, A Revival for Others

Seven years ago the US pulled an upset which turned Mexican football on its head. In a matter of 90 minutes, talk of revenge against the Germans that knocked Mexico from France ’98 turned into talk of Mexico’s most painful World Cup elimination.

Seven years later, Javier Aguirre, the man in charge that day, gets another opportunity to face the last team he faced as head coach of the Mexican Team during his first term. For Aguirre, the Gold Cup Final is an opportunity to shake off personal demons; for the team, it’s a chance to finally turn the page on a decade-long dark chapter.

For the United States, the match is a matter of bragging rights, but perhaps little else. Between the Confederations Cup, the Riot Squad versus David Beckham, and the team’s arrival at the finals, the summer of 2009 has become the Summer of Soccer in America. With a so called “C” team, the match may not have as much weight as it does for El Tri.

Mexico, on the other hand, stands to gain more than appears on the surface. The amount of symbolism, starting with the head coach anecdote, and possible momentum is perhaps lost in the hype of the rivalry.

When the US beat Mexico in 2002, they accomplished two key things: First, they tarnished an entire generation of players. A generation which “lost their balls” that day and, after presenting the worst Mexican performance in a World Cup since 1978, a generation which Mexico has stubbornly retained.

On the other hand, the US wrote a manual that day. A handbook of sorts, a formula, which broke down and detailed the way Mexican sides approached the game, and what it took to defeat them. A recipe that the US has followed religiously since, perfecting the art of the 2-0, and which has spread throughout the region, exhibited by all teams from Costa Rica, to El Salvador, to Panama.

Aguirre on Sunday has the opportunity to continue what Hugo Sanchez began a year ago. The “B” team which Mexico presents is really more of a first team in training. A group of youngsters, whose process with El Tri began under Sanchez but was interrupted with the foolish appointment of Eriksson, and now have to resume that process with the pressure of World Cup Qualification upon their shoulders.

More importantly, unlike the previous generation among which many players had never beaten the US on American soil, this is a group of Mexican players who have never lost to the States. And should Mexico win, it will be a generation of players whose National Team careers will have begun by breaking the “curse” that has haunted Mexican football for a decade.

On the surface, the match appears to be a match between younger, less experienced sides, and for the United States it very well may be. For Mexico, however, the game represents a golden opportunity which El Tri may not see again until after South Africa 2010.

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