Reporting from Herzogenaurach, Germany
When the bus carrying the Mexican soccer team pulled up in front of its hotel late Friday night, the doors swung open as soon as the tires stopped rolling. But for several long minutes, no one got off.
Inside the players could be heard laughing and joking, enjoying a rare light moment in what has been a tense run-up to next month's World Cup.
For at least one player, however, there will be little cause for celebration Sunday. After Mexico's late-afternoon friendly with Gambia, Coach Javier Aguirre has to send someone home to Mexico. Each team's official 23-man World Cup roster must be submitted Tuesday and Mexico, with 24 players in camp, is one over the limit.
"I've never liked this," Aguirre said.
Although El Tri is dealing with several nagging injuries — six players, including Giovani dos Santos, Ricardo Osorio and Gerardo Torrado either missed practice or worked out only lightly on consecutive days last week, Aguirre said — much of the speculation on who is likely to be cut has centered on 36-year-old striker Adolfo "Bofo" Bautista and 20-year-old midfielder Jonathan dos Santos.
As one of eight forwards on the roster, Bautista's position seems the most precarious — although Aguirre, with a core of young stars, has made much about the value in experience older players bring.
Both Bautista and Jonathan dos Santos have sat out two of Mexico's last three matches and were late-game substitutes in the third. But without mentioning names, Aguirre said he expects to give substantial time against Gambia to players in danger of being cut.
Aguirre has been in this position before, when he coached Mexico into the 2002 World Cup. And he said the most important thing is to be honest with whomever is let go.
"It's difficult for them to understand," he said. "We explain to them the elements that went into our determination that he won't be going to the World Cup."
Aguirre has been with the Mexican team just 14 months, taking over for Sven-Goran-Erikkson last spring after the final round of World Cup qualifiers had begun. In that time, he has tried out more than 70 players in an effort to find the best 23. And now, with European matches against Gambia and Italy and an exhibition with a South African club team left before the June 11 World Cup opener, he has finally run out of time.
"We have three games more, one to decide which player finally has to return to Mexico and another, against Italy to decide on a lineup and what we're doing to do in South Africa."