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Belgians Wilt in Heat After Costly Penalty

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, 21, 1998; Page D8

 Mexico's goalie, Jorge Campos (center), dives to knock the ball away from Belgium's Luis Oliveria (right). (Francois Guillott/AFP)

BORDEAUX, June 20 — Maybe the 98-degree heat twisted everyone's senses, but the following oddities actually occurred today during a 2-2 tie between Mexico and Belgium at sizzling Parc Lescure:

The defense-loving Belgians blew a two-goal lead.

The Mexicans didn't collapse under World Cup pressure.

A coach complimented a referee.

By the end, both teams had used their allocation of three substitutes. Both were left with 10 players on the field following two red cards and both were so drained by the unusually oppressive weather that hardly anyone had the energy to make a run at the goal.

But only Mexico (1-0-1) was pleased with the final result, which kept it in prime position for one of Group E's two round-of-16 berths heading into its first-round finale against the Netherlands Thursday. Disheartened Belgium (0-0-2) must beat South Korea to remain in contention and avoid first-round elimination for the first time in 28 years.

"We have to be happy because we were in trouble," said Mexico forward Cuauhtemoc Blanco, who scored a spectacular tying goal in the 63rd minute. "We weren't ready to panic. We had to stay calm. We talked about it at halftime. We said, 'We're not done in this game.'"

They appeared to be done after Marc Wilmots scored late in the first half and early in the second to provide Belgium with a lead that appeared to be in no danger. Defender Pavel Pardo had been ejected in the 29th minute to leave Mexico a player short — an obvious disadvantage compounded by Belgium's famously efficient defense.

But the game took a dramatic turn in the 55th minute, when Belgium defender Gert Verheyen tripped Ramon Ramirez from behind in the penalty area. A moment later, after referee Hugh Dallas sent Verheyen to the locker room with a red card, Alberto Garcia Aspe sent the penalty kick into the lower right corner of the net.

Suddenly back in the match, re-energized Mexico needed only seven more minutes to score the equalizer — a spectacular goal by Blanco that will probably will go down as one of the best in the month-long tournament. Ramirez breezed down the left flank and bent a cross toward the far post. The hard-charging Blanco made contact with a breathtaking volley using the outside of his left foot. The ball streaked just inside the right post, and goalkeeper Filip De Wilde collapsed against the pole in disbelief.

"I don't think we can be happy because when it's 2-0, you have to finish the game," Belgium Coach Georges Leekens said. "Our energy and our fuel were empty the last 20 minutes."

Those final 20 minutes tested the endurance of both teams. Luis Hernandez, who scored two goals in Mexico's 3-1 opening victory over South Korea, pleaded to come out after injuring an ankle. But Coach Manuel Lapuente had used his three substitutions, so Hernandez courageously hobbled around the field.

Mexico's best opportunity to go ahead came in the 89th minute, when De Wilde stuffed consecutive attempts by Jesus Arellano and Ramirez. Belgium's exhausted players made little effort to go forward in the closing moments.

The two-goal uprising was so unlike Mexico, which has fared poorly in every World Cup appearance except for the two it hosted and advanced to the quarterfinals.

Despite his disappointment, Leekens had kind words for Dallas, the Scottish referee. The officials have been severely criticized by coaches, players and World Cup organizers for not issuing enough red cards, then for issuing too many.

"I thought he had the game in hand," Leekens said. "Maybe two days ago there were too many red cards. But now I think there is a proper balance."

Pardo was sent off for clipping Vital Borkelmans from behind well after the Belgian had passed the ball. Fifteen minutes later, Wilmots scored his first goal on a corner kick that nicked Mexico's Claudio Suarez on the head, then bounced off Wilmots' chest and thigh before bouncing past goalie Jorge Campos.

Three minutes into the second half, Wilmots expanded the lead with a powerful run through the heart of Mexico's defense and a 12-yard shot past the helpless Campos.

"Playing with only 10 men was certainly a handicap," Campos said. "But we played better football and managed to score... The final score is a reasonable reflection of the game."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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