world cup 2010 4 days

Mexico just hopes to survive World Cup opener against South Africa

Players and fans from around the world prepare for the June 11 opening of World Cup 2010 in South Africa.
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2010

MEXICO CITY -- The very first match of the 2010 World Cup will pit Mexico against the tournament's host, the underdog South African team playing before a huge home crowd at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg. Mexican fans are praying their team survives the encounter.

Friday's game, with all its fanfare and opening-day jitters, will not only draw hundreds of millions of television viewers but will likely decide whether Mexico or South Africa has a chance to advance to the second round.

For South Africa, an early loss would be a bitter disappointment, but most analysts say South Africa is the weaker team. For Mexico, a stronger qualifier, to sputter would be a national embarrassment.

"The South Africa players run and fight hard for the whole game, and on top of that, they will have the excitement of their fans," said Javier Aguirre, the Mexico coach, perhaps imagining what Soccer City Stadium will look like with 95,000 people on hand for the first World Cup match held in Africa.

"But in terms of football, I get the impression they are below the other two teams," said Aguirre, a salty former professional midfielder who played for Mexico's national team. He believes Mexico will best South Africa, before facing the greater challenges represented by France and Uruguay in its group.

Aguirre -- known as "El Vasco," the Basque (his family has roots in Spain) -- is popular in Mexico. He was tossed off the field by the referee after he kicked a Panamanian player during the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup series. Fans liked that he showed some grit. He says the first game against South Africa "is fundamental."

Mexico has never reached the quarterfinals in a World Cup that was played outside of Mexico (it made it twice when Mexico hosted). In the last four World Cups, Mexico advanced out of group play, but lost in the round of 16, beaten by Bulgaria, Germany, the United States and Argentina.

Almost one year after taking over the leadership of the national team, which was faltering under Sven-Goran Eriksson, an intense but reserved Swede, Aguirre has helped transform the squad from a lackluster group of over-indulged younger players and overweight veterans into a team that could advance.

Fans in Mexico say there are two players to watch -- the kid and the vet.

Youth is represented by Javier Hernández, a sweet-faced 22-year-old forward who is the first Mexican signed to play for England superclub Manchester United; his deal is worth a reported $12 million. He has tremendous potential, but is mostly untested.

The old timer is Cuauhtémoc Blanco, a 37-year-old midfielder who grew up kicking balls in Tepito, a tough Mexico City barrio.

"He is really the biggest name in Mexico, a magic name, and when you see him playing he is the one who can really make a difference," said Gustavo Mendoza, a commentator who joins Blanco each Monday for the TV show "An Hour with Cuauhtémoc Blanco."

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