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WORLD CUP DAILY REPORT

Mexico Proving Critics Wrong With New Coach, Confidence

Soccer: Rather than focus on detractors, Lapuente builds faith in his team, which takes on Germany today.

June 29, 1998|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONTPELLIER, France — Manuel Lapuente is an avid chess player--analytical, always thinking ahead, ready to take the offensive.

Those traits translate well to coaching a soccer team, and Lapuente is moving his pieces across the World Cup chessboard like a grand master.

Before the tournament, Mexico was nicknamed "Tritanic," a play on its three-colored flag and the perception it was headed for a disaster because of its mediocre qualifying performances and the firing of coach Bora Milutinovic. Instead, it has been sailing full speed ahead under Lapuente, who said the Titanic image has been sunk. "Now we are Columbus' three small ships, about to come in to port," he said.

Criticized for omitting Carlos Hermosillo--the team's leading scorer in qualifying play--Lapuente ignored his detractors and has built a resilient team that has reason to be confident as it prepares to face Germany today in a round-of-16 match at Stade de la Mosson.

"We didn't come here to prove [critics] were wrong and we were right. We came here with lots of faith and trust in the team we had, and not to prove anything to anybody," Lapuente said Sunday, after his team's practice. "We came to do our best. And we are."

That has included a come-from-behind victory over South Korea--Mexico's first triumph in a World Cup held in Europe--and 2-2 draws with Belgium and the Netherlands in which they trailed by two goals each time. On the latter occasion, they pulled even in the fifth minute of injury time on striker Luis Hernandez's third goal of the tournament.

"Nobody wants to have to do that," goalkeeper Jorge Campos said of the rallies, "but we have good physical condition and we have very good forwards, so we know that if we're losing, 1-0, or 2-0, we can come back."

Another reason they've been able to come back is Lapuente's wise use of his bench. In each game, he has brought striker Ricardo Pelaez on as a second-half substitute, and Pelaez has scored two goals and set up another. Substitute Jesus Arellano provided a similar lift on the right side against Belgium, orchestrating Cuauhtemoc Blanco's equalizer in searing heat in Bordeaux June 20.

"I think we prove to everybody that we can play fine football. In Mexico, football is important. It is a passion. This is good football. But we need to have good international results because sometimes, people don't believe in us," midfielder Jaime Ordiales said.

"People didn't believe in our team, but we believe in ourselves. We came here thinking to win, always to win. We play every game with the same thought. Now, things are very fine for us. We are a big team. This is a big moment for us."

In big games, however, Mexico hasn't always played big. This is its 11th World Cup appearance, which ranks among the leaders, but it has never gotten past the quarterfinals. Most recently, it lost to Bulgaria in the second round in 1994.

One of its most memorable World Cup losses was its 1986 quarterfinal match against Germany in Monterrey, Mexico. After neither team scored in regulation or overtime, Germany won on penalty kicks, 4-1.

"When Germany beat Mexico in that game, I was a child in Acapulco, surfing," Campos said. "I saw it on TV. Now I have the opportunity to make history for Mexico."

However, Germany will pose the stiffest challenge Mexico has yet faced because of its experience, discipline and superb technical skills.

"[Today] is the most important game for us, most important for me, maybe ever," Campos said. "If we win this game, all of Mexico will celebrate. To beat Germany will be a difficult game."

Lapuente lauded Germany's physical and mental strength but emphasized that his own team, with an average age of 26, is about three years younger--and perhaps has more endurance. "Germany is a great team and always well prepared, but at this moment, we're ready to confront Germany," he said. "We are prepared . . . I don't know all of the German team's secrets. Nobody knows everything. But the fundamental characteristics are that their defense is solid. Essentially they have four players in the back and their two forwards [Oliver Bierhoff and Jurgen Klinsmann] are very good.

"I don't know what surprises [German coach] Berti Vogts has in store for us, but it would be dangerous for us to stay on the defense against the Germans. We would get pushed against the wall, and we won't do that."

They won't get pushed around by anyone. "It could be Germany or Mexico [who wins], because every team in the second round is very solid," Pelaez said. "Mexico has a lot of possibilities. Germany is very solid, very difficult. Germany is Germany, always. But Mexico always goes against logic."

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