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Sunday, 2 June, 2002, 06:52 GMT 07:52 UK
Mexico thrive on competition
Mexico coach Javier Aguirre lectures his squad in training
Coach Aguirre has introduced more organisation
BBC Sport Online's Tim Vickery

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Football in Latin America has spread a long way from its orginal southern strongholds of Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

Onwards and northwards has been the rallying cry.

Colombia are the reigning South American champions and Ecuador have made it to their first World Cup.

Central America has well and truly caught the bug.

Just ask Brazil. The four-time world champions were brought down by two Central American sides in last year's Copa America.

They will be making a huge mistake if they under-estimate Costa Rica in their final World Cup group game.

With football on the rise in North America and the Caribbean, the recent Concacaf World Cup qualification campaign was the most competitive in the region's history.

Mexico were pushed all the way and are no longer the kings of an anthill, winning a virtual bye into the World Cup every four years.

This time they had to earn their place - and in doing so they gave an excellent demonstration of the strengths of contemporary Mexican football.

While the game in South America struggles with huge economic problems, Mexico enjoys a relative advantage.

It can import big name foreign players, and perhaps more importantly, top quality coaches.

Mexico goalkeeper Oscar Perez
Oscar Perez is a dominant last-line of defence
Argentina boss Marcelo Bielsa recently spent five years there. Former Real Madrid coach Benito Floro is another who has plied his trade in the country.

The clear result is that the Mexican game has made huge strides in tactical terms.

They struggled early in qualification because these advances were not reflected in the national team.

Then-coach Enrique Meza was clearly out of his depth.

He organised his team in a way that meant that his three centre-backs could be taken out with a single pass.

As soon as Javier Aguirre took over there was a dramatic improvement.

The new man made a point of keeping the team compact, difficult to play through.

In the five high pressure qualifiers under his command, Mexico's defence was breached just once - and that was a freak own goal.

In possession they were suddenly smooth and fluid, with the team well postioned so that the man receiving the ball had plenty of options to give a first time pass.

As well as sealing a World Cup place with their late surge, Aguirre's Mexico also left a highly favourable impression when they finished second in last year's Copa America.

Now they are set to test themselves on football's most demanding stage.

It is vital that Mexico get the collective side of their game right because they lack the kind of individual talent that can tip the balance in a game - especially as the lively and intelligent Jesus Arellano is suspended for the first game.

The only player they have with the ability to conjure a goal from nothing is Cuauhtemoc Blanco.

But Aguirre has them well-drilled and if things go wrong they have Oscar Perez, an excellent goalkeeper, to come to the rescue.

Few sides will relish playing against them.


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GROUP G
  P GD PTS
MEXICO 3 +2 7
ITALY 3 +1 4
CROATIA 3 -1 3
ECUADOR 3 -2 3

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