NIIGATA, Japan — How many tough acts are too many to follow?
The Croatian "golden generation" of soccer talent that produced the surprising third-place finish in the 1998 World Cup has accumulated some tarnish, with such luminaries as Davor Suker, Alen Boksic, Robert Jarni and Robert Prosinecki all 32 or older. Monday, (tonight, Pacific time), the old Croats try to limber up for the opening act of their encore.
Mexico Coach Javier Aguirre, who has spent the last week reminding anyone who would listen that Croatia isn't what it used to be, now faces the hard part, the walk-had-better-be-as-good-as-the-talk part.
Mexico and Croatia face the unenviable assignment of stepping onto the field at Big Swan Stadium, where two days earlier Ireland and Cameroon engaged in a thrilling first-round match, displaying the kind of passion, nerve and suspense usually reserved for a final.
Unlikely to scale those kinds of heights, Mexico and Croatia enter their match just trying to get their accounts in order. Croatia has more doubters than Aguirre to convince--and an encounter with Italy next on the schedule. Mexico has not played a consistently effective 90 minutes in months, partly because of Aguirre's lineup experimentation, partly because of Mexico's dearth of creative talent.
With his best playmaker, Jesus Arellano, and attacking midfielder Joahan Rodriquez suspended, Aguirre has patched together a midfield with spare parts while doing what he could to rattle and distract the Croatians.
Defense-minded as a coach, Aguirre went firmly on the attack in recent days, describing Croatia as past its prime, suspect in the back and basically there for the taking.
"It does not look like a really strong team," he said.
This seemed to cause more confusion than anger in the Croatia camp, where coaches and players rightly wondered what Aguirre was getting at.
When was the last time Mexico has been to the World Cup semifinals? (Answer: Never.)
What has Mexico done lately to set the soccer world afire? (Answer: Nothing. Mexico barely qualified for this World Cup, having to rally from a 1-3-2 start to clinch on the very last day. Since, Mexico has looked unimpressive in a string of exhibition victories against national "B" teams and club sides at less than full strength.)
Croatia Coach Mirko Jozic acknowledged his team might not be the equal of its 1998 predecessor, but noted that Mexico has seen better days as well.
"The last Mexican generation was also more talented and now they are a lot older," he said. "Some have even retired from international soccer."
And for all the talk about Croatia's over-30 brigade, Aguirre appears ready to start one of the oldest players on his roster, 33-year-old Sigifredo Mercado, at right defensive midfielder tonight.
Jarni may be 33, but he is still a dangerous threat on Croatia's left wing. Aguirre believes he needs an experienced hand to blunt Jarni and his attacking runs down the flank.
Suker, who led all scorers at the '98 World Cup, is 34, and his longtime partner on Croatia's forward line, Boksic, is 32. Playmaking midfielder Prosinecki, the key to the Croatian attack, is also 32. Yet Aguirre is concerned enough about the challenge they present to juggle his back line, bringing in Salvador Carmona, a veteran of Mexico's 1998 World Cup team, to start at left back ahead of the lesser experienced Melvin Brown.
Braulio Luna, a pleasant surprise in recent games, and Gabriel Caballero, recently naturalized from his native Argentina, will start at the left and right attacking midfield positions.
Up front, Aguirre is expected to partner his best goal scorer, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, with Jared Borgetti--possibly using speedy Francisco Palencia as a change-of-pace substitute.
With Italy the prohibitive favorite to win the group and Ecuador making its World Cup debut, the winner of this match will have an inside track on second place and the other berth in the second round. Here, the talk stops. And with it, most likely the loser as well.