Mexican soccer fans seem to be confident, perhaps even overconfident, that their team will easily win its upcoming World Cup qualifying playoff against New Zealand on Wednesday. “New Zealand is nothing,” one fan told us after Mexico’s last home game at the Azteca stadium.
Even though Mexico has only won two out of its last 10 world cup qualifying matches, the general consensus here seems to be that Mexico has a richer soccer tradition than the Kiwis, and more experienced players, who should be able to dispatch the “All Whites.”
But before you write the Kiwis off consider this:
New Zealand participated in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, with a squad whose midfield is almost the same as it is now. While team did not advance to the second round, they did manage three ties in the group stage, against Italy, Slovakia and Paraguay, an eventual quarterfinalist.
New Zealand’s attack is somewhat better this time around, thanks to the addition of Marco Rojas, a 22 year old striker of Chilean descent, who scored 50 goals in the past two seasons of Australia’s A-league, and now plays for Germany’s VfB Stuttgart.
Rojas is not the only player with European experience.
Eight players in the All Whites squad have graduated from the relatively weak leagues of Australia and New Zealand, and now play for clubs in England, Scotland, Sweden and Denmark.
Still, beating Mexico in the Azteca stadium, or even obtaining a draw, will be a tall order for the Kiwis, whose last qualifying game was against the Solomon Islands, in front of 5,000 fans.
For starters, the Kiwis will have to adjust to Mexico City’s altitude, a challenging task for any team that comes to play at the Azteca stadium, which is located 6,000 feet above sea level.
The All Whites will also have to deal with 100,000 screaming Mexican fans, who will do their best to make them unwelcome at the Azteca.
And then there’s the Mexican team. Sure, it’s performed terribly recently. But the squad selected for this match at least knows how to play together. The European based players have been ditched, and coach Miguel Herrera [Mexico's 4th coach in two months] has picked a starting 11 that is made up mostly of players from league champs, Club America.
This will be no Mexican blowout though.
It will be a tightly contested match in the Azteca, with New Zealand saving its energy, playing solid defense for much of the game and relying on counter attacks.
Mexico will eke out a one or two goal victory, and on Sunday, it will secure qualification by tying against the Kiwis in Wellington, in dramatic fashion.
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.