WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A. – Coach Javier Aguirre said he knows why Mexico was able to rebound from a poor start to qualify for the World Cup: He saw it on the players’ faces after they lost the first match under his guidance.
“The paradox is that it was exactly there where this national team was actually born, amongst those faces full of pain in the dressing room,” Aguirre, 51, told WorldSoccer.com after the team’s 2-1 loss to El Salvador during CONCACAF qualifying on June 6, 2009. “With that defeat we were further away from qualifying, we had lost three out of four matches and that’s where I saw the team emerge. Those were hard times, but I never doubted that the World Cup was within our reach.”
He was right. Mexico never lost again in qualifying. In its next six games, El Tri won five and tied one, elevating it to a second-place finish with an overall record of six wins, three losses and a tie. Its 19 points were one behind the first-place United States.
But taking Mexico from the brink of elimination to a berth in the World Cup is nothing new for Aguirre. In 2001, he replaced Enrique Meza when El Tri had earned four points in the past five qualifiers.
Aguirre turned things around immediately, beating the United States, 1-0, at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City in his first match. Mexico went unbeaten the rest of the way and clinched a berth in the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan with a 3-0 win over Honduras on the final day of qualifying.
Aguirre led the team to the round of 16, when El Tri was sent home after suffering a 2-0 loss to the United States in a game that cost him his job. But seven years and four coaches later, Aguirre finds himself back at the helm of a team with championship aspirations.
Shortly after a disastrous, 3-1 loss to Honduras on April 1, 2009, that had the team close to failing to qualify for a fifth straight World Cup, Mexican soccer officials removed Sven-Göran Eriksson as head coach and hired Aguirre.
And the rest is history.
“What he transmits is his attitude,” Mexico midfielder Andrés Guardado told FIFA.com. “His will to win is important. It is important that he tells us we can, that we are capable, because maybe we had some doubts in the group. Aguirre removes all the doubts.”
That’s because Aguirre has experienced plenty of success. The man nicknamed “El Vasco” began his playing career in 1979 as a 20-year-old midfielder for América of the Primera División of Mexico. In 1980, he played for the Los Angeles Aztecs of the North American Soccer League before returning to América from 1981-1984. He finished his career by playing for Mexican team Atlante (1984-86) and Spain’s Osasuna (1986-1987) before finishing his career with Mexico’s Guadalajara (1987-1993).
But nothing compared to his playing days for the national team. Aguirre, who finished with 14 goals in 59 games from 1983-1992, led El Tri to the quarterfinals of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, where the team fell in penalty kicks, 4-1, to eventual-runner-up West Germany.
But Aguirre wasn’t around to see the end of that game from the field. He was given his second yellow – and subsequent red card – in the 100th minute and was ejected from the game.
El Tri’s loss in Monterrey on June 21, 1986, still equals the furthest it has advanced in 13 trips to the World Cup, as Mexico also made the quarterfinals in 1970.
“Soccer is sometimes like that and there are many pressures,” Aguirre, 51, told CONCACAF.com. “But I am sure that any player on the national team can handle these things and has both the ability and mental capacity to do so.”
Aguirre got his first chance as a head coach with Atlante in 1995 before moving to Pachuca three years later. From there, he began his first stint with Mexico’s national team in 2001, leading the team to the round of 16 at World Cup 2002 and a berth in the Copa América finals. He parlayed that success into two jobs in Spain’s La Liga, first with Osasuna in 2002 and then with Atlético Madrid in 2006. But in 2009, Madrid fired him, setting the stage for the Mexico City native to return home.
“I want to drill in their heads that the World Cup is the pinnacle in terms of aspiring to represent your country,” Aguirre told The Los Angeles Times. “We are not scared of anything.”
But it’s going to take a lot more than courage for El Tri, a 66-to-1 long shot to win it all, to advance out of the group stage for the fifth straight time. Mexico, ranked 17th by FIFA, opens Group A play against 83rd-ranked South Africa on June 11, followed by a game against ninth-ranked France on June 17 before concluding against 16th-ranked Uruguay on June 22.
“When you change coaches it is because things are not working properly and because we are not in the top places,” Guardado told FIFA.com. “Javier came to start a revolution in a group that was a little bit broken.”