Costa Rica’s national men’s soccer team play Mexico in World Cup qualifying Saturday night at Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium in what could prove to be a deciding match for both.
Mexico’s El Tricolor historically has far outplayed La Selección – 21 wins to five Tico wins, with 13 draws in 39 matches – and outscored them by a nearly 3 to 1 margin. In its history of World Cup qualifying, Mexico have only lost one game at home in the massive 100,000-seat Azteca, according to FIFA.
The one team to have bested them? Costa Rica, in 2001, in a game now known infamously as the Aztecazo, when, thanks to a late goal from Hernán Medford, the Tico side beat El Tri 2-1, on the road to the 2002 world finals in South Korea and Japan.
Neither team is guaranteed the win, but if there is an opportunity for a second Aztecazo, tomorrow night is a ripe one for La Sele.
Head Coach Rodrigo Kenton told the Swiss soccer news Website Goal.com earlier this week that Mexico shows a “lack of humility” in its attitude toward Central American opponents. “They always underestimate teams from Central America,” he told the Swiss Web site, after spending the prior week deflecting insinuations from local press about tensions between the squads.
“Mexico is a strong team,” striker Bryan Ruiz told the daily Al Día. “We have to be smart; it’s not impossible to win (in Mexico).”
Moreover, as Mexican Captain Rafael Márquez told FIFA.com this week, El Tri’s play has been “stagnating” of late.
The team is winless in its last four qualifiers, including three shutout losses, only squeezing past Jamaica in the previous qualifying round on goal differential.
Meanwhile, La Sele is unbeaten in World Cup qualifying this time around, having won nine of its last 10 games. Yet, besides a trio of wins against El Salvador and Honduras, the team has played fairly undemanding opponents. The Ticos racked up 22 goals in their last seven games, while Mexico scored nine.
Costa Rica sit atop the group standings with the United States after one game in this hexagonal round. Mexico, who lost the U.S. 2-0 in February, are at the bottom with Honduras. Head Coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, the storied Swedish former helmsman of England’s national team, has said that he’s prepared to lose his job if his team loses to La Sele Saturday.
Both squads will be without their captains, Tico midfielder Walter Centeno and Mexico’s center back Márquez, who are both ineligible to play after accumulating yellow cards and a red, respectively, in previous matches. Márquez will also not be able to attend the match as his club, FC Barcelona, will not release him for travel.
Costa Rica’s rising star and goalie Keylor Navas has taken back the starting slot from veteran Ricardo González, who covered for an injured Navas in La Sele’s 2-0 win over Honduras at home last month.
Mexico hold the 23rd spot in FIFA’s national team rankings. Costa Rica are at number 32, after having steadily surged from 79 last July, a 10-year nadir, when Kenton took over.
Also Saturday night, El Salvador will host the U.S., and Honduras will travel to Trinidad and Tobago. Of these six teams, the top three will automatically qualify for the 2010 World Cup. The fourth-place team will play the fifth-place team from the South American regional tournament for the hemisphere’s last ticket to South Africa.
President Oscar Arias, who will be in town to discuss economic relations, plans to attend the game alongside Mexican President Felipe Calderón, Casa Presidencial has confirmed.