RUSTENBURG, South Africa – The talk around Mexico’s World Cup camp last week was as much about respect as it was about Argentine star Lionel Messi.
And for good reason.
The Argentines rolled through group play unbeaten while Mexico struggled, losing to Uruguay and tying South Africa.
Argentina has won two World Cups; Mexico has never made it past the quarterfinals – and it hasn’t even made it that far in 24 years.
Plus Argentina has Messi, the world’s best player. And Mexico doesn’t.
But despite what everyone else considers to be impossibly long odds facing El Tri, the Mexicans say they’re going to show up for today’s second-round match against the tournament favorites anyway. And they’re not going to be intimidated.
“It’s Argentina. So what?” Rafael Marquez said in Spanish. “We can beat them.”
For Marquez, this match is personal. The 31-year-old defender, playing in his third World Cup, saw the last one end in a second-round loss to Argentina in extra time. Four years later he still hasn’t gotten over it.
“I have a thorn in my side from (that),” said Marquez, one of eight members of this year’s Mexican team who also played in the 2006 World Cup. “I’m going through one of the best moments of my soccer life and my professional life. And I want to enjoy it.
“This is going to be my last World Cup and we have to take advantage of this game. We’re just a step away from history.”
That’s because a victory would send Mexico on to the quarterfinals for just the third time – and for the first time since current coach Javier Aguirre played for the national team.
“It’s an opportunity to change the history, to transcend it and go forward,” said goalkeeper Oscar Perez who, at 37, is playing in his last World Cup as well. “Javier has given us the tools to win and we’re going to try to carry it out.”
Doing that is likely to require a delicate balancing act, however. Under Aguirre, Mexico has played a dynamic game in which its midfielders and most of its defenders push forward on the offensive end. That has left it open to counterattacks, though, and with Messi leading a speedy front line that also features Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuain, Mexico could find itself playing right into Argentina’s hands.
“We intend to take good care of the ball. And when we don’t have it we have to try to get it back as soon as possible,” midfielder Gerardo Torrado said.
They’ll have to try to score, too, something Mexico has had trouble doing despite its aggressive style. El Tri has just three goals in this World Cup, one of which came on a penalty kick.
“We have to play a perfect game,” said Marquez, Messi’s teammate with Barcelona of Spain’s La Liga. “They have a great offense but they also have weaknesses and we have to find them. We have to play the better game.
“I believe my teammates will play a great game.”