There is nothing subtle about the pressure on the Mexican World Cup team. As the team left Mexico City for the United States and its quest to reclaim its country's soccer pride, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari addressed the team: "I am sure that you rely on the confidence that comes from having prepared well and, fundamentally, you count on the aid and enthusiasm of all Mexican fans."
After the political niceties, Salinas let the team know his expectations: "Take heart, and onward to victory!"
Easy for him to say. Salinas and the rest of Mexico realize this is the country's best chance to re-establish its reputation as a soccer power--with a new coach and a young and disciplined team.
Although this is the 10th time Mexico has played in the World Cup final, Mexico's soccer fans are most eager to erase the memory of sitting home in 1990.
The Mexican soccer federation was hit with a two-year ban for using over-age players in a youth tournament in 1988 and was not allowed to compete in the last World Cup. This one is for revenge.
"We don't want to promise anything but our effort and dedication," Coach Miguel Mejia Baron said.
It's a typically understated comment from Mejia Baron, who is credited with taking Mexico's national team from the category of talented but disappointing to its current status as one of the tournament's eight-best teams.
Mejia Baron is the architect of Mexico's new look, which emphasizes teamwork and organization over the selfish, ball-hogging style formerly favored by Mexican teams. Their look-at-me flair was undeniably appealing, but yielded only sporadic results.
Enter Mejia Baron, who left a flourishing dental practice to take over the national team after the abrupt departure of Argentine Cesar Luis Menotti in January of 1993. Mejia Baron had been a player for the powerful Pumas club of Mexico City through the '60s and '70s. He brilliantly guided Mexico through World Cup qualifying--his team was the first to qualify for the finals and won five of its last six qualifying matches.
Mejia Baron earned the respect of his players when he supported them in a threatened strike over free agency in the Mexican professional league last season. Mejia Baron needed the resulting good will to convince the players to accept the discipline of his system.
Mejia Baron was intent on doing one thing--driving the Mexican offense forward. His system takes a common 4-4-2 and converts it to a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 on the attack. Swift midfielders make the whole thing possible as does Mexico's most unusual weapon, the keeper/sweeper: Jorge Campos.
Menotti was fond of calling Campos "the goalkeeper of the 21st Century" for his penchant for coming well off the line to make saves and then press forward on the attack. His position well in front of the penalty area discourages counterattacks.
His confidence as a field player is well earned. Campos plays as a forward for his club team, Pumas, and in 1989 he led the team in scoring. Last summer when Mexico played the U.S. national team in the Gold Cup final in Mexico City, Campos played the first half in goal and the second as a forward.
Campos, who grew up in Acapulco and had dreams of becoming a professional surfer, is a self-effacing man whose steely presence on the field has a calming effect on his team. While he was in goal, Mexico went 9-2-1 in qualifying and Campos had seven shutouts.
"I don't feel special," Campos said. "I just try to not to make a mistake. Nobody is special. We are all the same on this team."
His ability to control the ball with his feet gives Mexico an added field player, hence the keeper/sweeper description. Like Rene Higuita of Colombia, Campos' style can also be risky. Although he uses his quickness to recover and get back, it is inevitable that Campos will give up a goal while out of position.
The approach has its critics, but Mejia Baron is comfortable with Campos' style.
"Football's a game of risk and we accept the risk Campos takes," he said. "He has the backing of his team and the coach."
Old questions about Mexico's consistency arose in the months before the World Cup. First came a tie against Bulgaria. An embarrassing 5-1 loss to Switzerland followed in January, and a 4-1 loss to Russia a week later. Critics acknowledged that Mexico had talent but that its players crumpled under pressure and reverted to their old, individualistic habits. That, plus the fact that Mexico's smaller players might be manhandled by Group E World Cup opponents--Italy, Ireland and Norway--could make things difficult.
When the added pressure of being, as some would argue, the second "home" team in the World Cup is factored in, Mexico's expectations of reaching the semifinals would seem fanciful.