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Crisis-hit Mexico face the moment of truth

© Reuters Limited 2001

MEXICO CITY, June 29 (Reuters) - Before Mexico played Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifier earlier this month, veteran defender Claudio Suarez told the public that if they intended to boo the team, he would be happier if they stayed away.

They took his advice.

Only 30,000 people turned up for the match at the 115,000 capacity Azeteca stadium, which is usually packed when then the "Tricolor" play.

A series of humiliating defeats and lacklustre performances have destroyed the national team's credibility in the eyes of the Mexican public.

On Sunday, with their third coach in less than a year making his debut, the Mexicans take on their old rivals the United States.

Anything other than a win will effectively end Mexico's hopes of qualifying for the 2002 World Cup and enhance their reputation as perennial underachievers.

Mexican football has always been an enigma.

The sport is hugely popular among Mexicans and with a population approaching 100 million, there seems no reason why the country should not emulate Latin American giants Brazil and Argentina and become a force in the world game.

The country has hosted two of the best World Cups to have been played - in 1970 and 1986 - and its Azteca stadia is still one of the finest soccer arenas in the world, 35 years after it was built.

Mexico also boasts one of the richest domestic leagues in Latin America and has even managed to attract the odd European star - including Spain's Michel and Emilio Butragueno - to play out their careers there.

Yet Mexico's record at the top level is uninspiring, their best performances in the World Cup being quarter-final appearances in the two competitions they hosted.

They have always been a regional power in CONCACAF where their opposition consists of the small Central American nations, the baseball and ice-hockey loving countries to the North and the tiny island nations of the Caribbean.

But now Mexico are seeing even their local dominance fade away.

National Pride
They have lost twice this year to the United States - a real blow for national pride given that soccer has always been one thing in which Mexicans can claim they do better than their neighbours.

Things got worse this month when they suffered World Cup qualifying defeats against Costa Rica and Honduras in the space of five days.

The defeat at home to Costa Rica was Mexico's first-ever in a World Cup qualifier at the Azteca stadium. Then came a resounding 3-1 defeat in Honduras, a scoreline which flattered the outclassed Mexicans.

Coach Enrique Meza resigned immediately after the final whistle, finishing a nine-month stint with a record of five wins, three draws and 11 defeats, and his place was taken 24 hours later by Javier Aguirre.

Aguirre has only three years experience as a coach and like Meza, who made his name by winning three Mexican titles with Toluca, came to the fore with a provincial club.

He will have to end a run of six straight defeats, which also included losses to Australia, South Korea and France in the Confederations Cup and a 4-0 thrashing by England in an international friendly.

Sweeping Changes
Aguirre has only five matches to make up a four-point gap on Honduras in the final stage of the CONCACAF qualifying group.

Only the top three qualify for next year's World Cup and Honduras, who are third, are four points ahead of Mexico, who are fifth, at the halfway mark.

Aguirre quickly made sweeping changes to the squad.

Veteran goalkeeper Jorge Campos and striker Luis Hernandez were shown the door, while 34-year-old midfielder Alberto Garcia Aspe was brought in along with six uncapped players. "I told the players face to face that, if they don't feel fully committed, they can take their things and leave," he said after his first training session on Monday.

"Nobody wanted to go. They players who stayed once the door was shut know that they can't turn back, they are staying here until Sunday and they are going to put their souls on the table."

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