Less than two months to go, and my preparations are in place. My students have been informed – any big games during their classes, and they don’t get a class. I’ve forked out 15 pesos for a Panini sticker album. I know, I’m a bit old for that, but I’m always convinced that this time will be England’s glorious moment, and I want all the souvenirs going. I’ll not be buying an England top this time round, but will invest in a green Mexican short of some (not too costly) nature. I also have Sky Sports, but I’ll be heading into the centre of the city for Mexico’s games. Armed with my camera, and ready to record the mad procession to and then around, and around, and around the Angel of Independence. As is the tradition.
Most importantly of all, I have bought four tickets to see Mexico play Chile at the Estadio Azteca in May, their last game in the country before they head off to play a few friendlies in Europe (including England at Wembley) prior to their first game in the World Cup in South Africa. Which will actually be the first game of the tournament. They open the event against the hosts, South Africa. What are their chances? They have a really tough group. It’s hard to see how they could have got a tougher group. Hosts South Africa, France and a slightly resurgent Uruguay. I personally fancy them to go through with France. A host nation has never gone out in the opening group phase before, but there’s always a first time. This could well be it.
From there, in the knock out stages, it is anyones game. Most Mexicans are pretty pessimistic. The general consensus is that they’ll put up a mighty battle against the first decent team they play, make everyone proud, and then get back on the plane to come home having lost. Their pessimism has historical support – that is normally exactly what happens. But at almost every tournement you’ll get one unfancied nation, one minor dark horse, get through to the semi finals. I’d like to think Mexico could be that team. They’ve played some great football since Hugo Sanchez left, having left them teetering on the brink of failure to qualify at all. Javier Aguierre has turned their fortunes around dramatically, with some thumping wins – it’ll be a long time before Mexicans forget the 5-0 thrashing they gave their northern neighbours in the final of the Gold Cup.
Mexico has a nice blend of experience and youth too. Rafael Marquez and Cuahuatemoc Blanco have been there, done that, got the T-shirt. The former is Mexico’s most successful footballer ever, with two European Champions League medals to his credit. The latter is, in my opinion, the greatest player to have ever pulled on a Mexico shirt. They have a number of other players who have plyed their trade in Europe, including a couple of youngsters who have Premier League experience in England. There’s also the new sensation Javier ‘Little Pea’ Hernandez who has just signed to play for Manchester United next season. Add in a few professional stalwarts like Cruz Azul’s Gerrado Torrado, and you have a pretty balanced team, high on talent, confidence and ability.
I’m looking forward to that game at the Azteca though. There are still tickets available at the time of writing, but don’t hang around – it’s likely to sell out before too long. I’ve been to see plenty of games in Mexico City, but all of them at Estadio Azul, home of Cruz Azul, my adopted team. I have actually been to the Azteca, a year or so ago. You can turn up most afternoons, slip the guy at the gate a few pesos (about 25 if I remember rightly) and you’ll get let inside to have a good wander round. If you’re quick, you can step on the grass and pretend to be Pele at the 1970 World Cup. But be quick, because you’ll get shouted at for trespassing on such hallowed turf…