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Mexico: Going, Going To the Second Round

By Mike Corder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 26, 1998; Page D10

 Philip Cocu of the Netherlands and teammates celebrate his goal four minutes into Thursday's match with Mexico.
(Jerry Lampen/Reuters)
SAINT-ETIENNE, France, June 25 — Mexico Coach Manuel Lapuente sat on the bench at soggy Stade Geoffroy-Guichard today, fully aware that, despite a two-goal deficit to the Netherlands in the second half, his team was on the brink of advancing to the second round of the World Cup. About 320 miles away in Paris, Belgium — Mexico's competitor for Group E's other berth — wasn't going to get the victory over South Korea that it needed to qualify.

But Lapuente said he didn't tell his players because, "They had to do what they believed in doing. We didn't come here to ask for something. We came here to do our own work."

In a dramatic finish to a remarkable first-round group, star forward Luis Hernandez scored with about 20 seconds remaining and Mexico completed its third consecutive startling comeback for a 2-2 tie with the Netherlands. It came just five days after the Mexicans rebounded from two goals down in the second half to tie Belgium and it earned them a round-of-16 match Monday against Group F champion Germany in Montpellier.

The Netherlands and Mexico each finished with a 1-0-2 record, but the Dutch won the group because of a superior goal differential — the first tiebreaker. They will meet Group F runner-up Yugoslavia Monday in Toulouse, but today's thriller was not the way they wanted to enter the elimination rounds.

For Mexico, it was the perfect momentum builder.

"We will not give up," midfielder Ramon Ramirez said. "The team is very strong. We continued to work and believe."

The Mexicans believed — even after an apparent tying goal in the 89th minute was disallowed, even after Ramirez was ejected for bumping the referee a moment later to leave his team a player short, even after their last, desperate surge appeared to fail.

Ricardo Pelaez, who cut the deficit in half with a 75th-minute header, flicked the ball into the penalty area for Hernandez in injury time. Dutch defender Jaap Stam was in position to prevent Hernandez from catching up to the ball and allow goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar to smother it. But Hernandez fought his way past the Manchester United-bound defender and poked the ball past the advancing goalie for his third goal of the tournament, setting off a wild celebration on the field and in the stands among thousands of Mexico supporters.

Within seconds of Hernandez's goal, Belgium's game ended in a 1-1 tie, meaning Mexico's last-minute miracle wasn't necessary after all. Or was it?

"We wanted to prove we could come back again," Pelaez said. "We are not afraid. We are 22 players and we knew we could do better."

For most of the afternoon, however, the Netherlands was in firm control. Forward Phillip Cocu scored in the fifth minute and midfielder Ronald De Boer added a second goal in the 19th. More threats narrowly missed the target — "We should have scored four or five goals," De Boer said. Mexico's offensive strategy was to take ridiculous dives in an attempt to draw a penalty kick. Meanwhile, Belgium had taken an early lead in its game, and the Mexicans appeared headed for a late-night flight back to Mexico City.

But ever so slowly, the match began to turn. Hernandez, quiet most of the day, started to find some space on attack and Pelaez and Ramirez pressured the Dutch defense. Pelaez made it 2-1 with a header through traffic, and 14 minutes later, Cuauhtemoc Blanco thought he had tied the score after finishing German Villa's through ball. But Blanco was ruled offside — a call confirmed by television replays — and in the commotion afterward, Ramirez made contact with Saudi referee Abdul Rahman Zeid and was shown a red card.

However, Mexico's persistence paid off, and for the first time in its long World Cup history, it advanced to the second round on European soil.

"We had the capability to do it," said Lapuente, whose team overcame a 1-0 deficit with three straight goals to beat South Korea in its opener. "We came with the heart of Mexico, not only us — us is very little — but we had the heart of our people. We feel it."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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