Mexico vs. Panama World Cup qualifier: Why some Mexicans are hoping for a loss

Some fans of Mexico's 'El Tri' soccer team think losing to Panama and possibly missing the World Cup could be good for the team – and the country.

Christian Palma/AP
Mexico coach Victor Vucetich, center left, talks with players during a training session in Mexico City, Monday, Oct. 7, 2013. Mexico will face Panama in 2014 World Cup qualifying match Friday night, Oct. 11, 2013.

Juan Carlos Ladrón de Guevara, a diehard fútbol fan, is conflicted about Mexico's soccer team.

While many Mexicans are wearing the green and white colors of "El Tri" in preparation for tonight's game against Panama – which Mexico must win to keep its hopes of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup alive – Mr. Ladrón de Guevara says he sees benefits to losing.

He loves the World Cup and wants to watch his country compete. But Mexico is struggling against Central American minnows to qualify and the country has a history of bowing out of international tournaments in the early elimination rounds. Those are symptoms, he says, of political and managerial problems in the Mexican Football Federation (FMF), and for that reason, Ladrón de Guevara wouldn’t mind seeing his squad sit out the 2014 tournament in Brazil.

“Only receiving a strong blow such as not going to the World Cup might generate deep changes” in Mexican soccer, he says.

His comments might come across as extreme, but they underscore the deep discontent felt by many fans of Mexico’s team, which has a history of underperforming on the international level and being bogged down by disputes between coaches, players, and management.

“There’s that argument that if they don’t make the World Cup, then they’ll actually have to sit down and fix things in Mexico that don’t go on in other countries,” says Tom Marshall, a British soccer journalist based in Guadalajara. He cites an oft-whispered rumor about a "gentlemen's agreement" among teams to limit the movement of homegrown players, along with a system that protects the richest teams from being demoted to the less-affluent second division.

None of these issues lead to strong soccer performances or fierce competition in the Mexican league, Mr. Marshall says.

Mexico hasn't missed a World Cup tournament since 1990. But the travails of the national team seem to mirror those of the country, where optimism was infectious for both the economy and the national team at the beginning of the year – only to disappoint. President Enrique Peña Nieto, who took office in December 2012 , has promised to promote competition in Mexico's business sector, passing an overhaul on the telecommunications sector, but still struggling to gain approval for legislation to make other sectors – like oil and gas – more competitive.

'Complete renovation'

That some fans hope Mexico loses tonight sums up the state of soccer in Mexico. The game is a big business here and the Mexican league – whose owners form the FMF – is perhaps the richest in the hemisphere, making the subpar performances even more embarrassing.

Writing in Bloomberg, journalist León Krauze called the Mexican team one of a top five in the world for generating revenues, with jerseys selling well and thousands of Mexicans traveling to the World Cup to support their team.

But the on-field management has been less successful than off the field.

Mexico fired coach José Manuel de la Torre after the team stumbled in earlier World Cup qualifying games this year, scoring a single goal in four home matches at the Estadio Azteca – a high-altitude monster stadium where Mexico used to never lose.

Being national coach is no easy task, especially when “the national team players feel like gods,” says Hector López, a Guadalajara-based sports marketing expert.

“You have to know the players, you have to know the clubs, the directors. He’s almost more a negotiator than a coach,” Mr. López says.

Still, there is some optimism among fans that new coach Víctor Manuel Vucetich can right the ship: 61 percent of Mexicans surveyed by polling company Gabinete de Comunicación Estratégica predicted that the team would qualify for the World Cup – most likely via a last-chance, two-game playoff against New Zealand.

But calls for reform - in both soccer and the country - are still top of mind for many fans.

“If there’s not a complete renovation, we’re never going to be able to advance,” says David Palafox Torres, another medical student buying tickets for the Mexico-Panama match. “It’s the same for the country."

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