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Mexico vs. New Zealand World Cup qualifier: Little to cheer for?

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Dario Lopez-Mills/AP

(Read caption) A fan of Mexico's soccer team waits for the 2014 World Cup qualifier match against New Zealand to begin in Mexico City, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013.

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Mexico’s last shot at making the World Cup kicks off this afternoon with the first leg of a home-and-home series with New Zealand, and Mexican productivity is expected to plunge as fans tune in to the match. Even Congress is planning to break from its annual budget debate to watch.

But the business of soccer and the corporate interests behind the senior national side have left some supporters with little to cheer for, while more than a few fans are privately pulling for a loss.

“The way that soccer is organized has the same vices [that] society and the business class suffer from,” says César Velázquez Guadarrama, public policy professor at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City.

Some observers like Mr. Velázquez cite Mexico’s soccer system as an example of some of the country’s most problematic practices – such as companies colluding or keeping competitors under control, instead of embracing competition – which limit player development in the domestic league and leave the national team ill-equipped for international tournaments. 

It produces sub-par performances on the pitch, too – as the team stumbled against Central American minnows in recent qualifying matches complete with coaches and players in constant conflict and, at times, a distinct lack of effort.

“The players weren’t running,” Eduardo García, a soccer fan and publisher of the online publication Sentido Común, recalls of a qualifying match against Honduras (ending in a draw) that he attended in September.

“They need to be taught a lesson” by missing the World Cup, says Claudio Hall, a chef and soccer fan unhappy with the team and its organizer, the Mexican Football Federation (FMF).

Those organizational vices – like a lack of effort and perceived lack of preparation – were apparent on the national team as it scraped through qualifying rounds and only advanced to the last-chance series thanks to some assistance from a US national side that itself qualified easily. Some fans fear those vices will become visible once again now that "El Tri," as the Mexican team is known, must defeat New Zealand in a two-match, total-goal playoff (scheduled for Nov. 13 and Nov. 20) to make it to Brazil.

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Just 56 percent of respondents in a GCE poll said Mexico would beat New Zealand; only 55 percent thought their team deserved to qualify for the World Cup. For a team that has traditionally been a lock for World Cup qualifying, the numbers show significant doubt among Mexican fans.

The FMF  “worry only about money and not the sport,” Mr. Hall says. “That is why they are in this situation.”

The pessimism about the senior soccer side comes as Mexico once again achieved success at the junior level. The U-17 squad recently finished runner-up in the World Cup for its age group and has won the tournament twice since 2005. But the secret of that success hasn’t translated to the senior level.

“What you see with the kids winning … is at that level there are not so many business interests. ... Their hearts are in it,” says Mr. García.

With the Mexican league paying comfortable salaries and not offering the sternest competition, effort seems to slide, García says.

Big business interests?

Velázquez sees in Mexican soccer too many vices that he says are common in the country, too. He starts with the system of promotion and relegation, common to leagues around the world, in which only one team – the one with the worst record – is demoted and the winner of the second division is promoted. But in Mexico, the rules are created in such a way that a team must struggle for three seasons before being demoted – something that favors the wealthiest clubs, which are unlikely to lose for so long, and makes it difficult for upstart squads to establish themselves.

Then there are the alleged gentlemen’s agreements – never officially acknowledged by the FMF – in which owners will not sign a player who left Mexico for another league, unless he was under contract with them prior to leaving.

Some owners also have had multiple soccer franchises, in violation of a policy set by FIFA, the sport’s governing body. It’s something Velázquez compares to public figures and big companies running roughshod over the rules, “and nothing happening.”

Other observers say the league's decision to squeeze two short seasons into each calendar year and crown two champions produces profit, but not necessarily the best on-field product.

“This scheme … contributes to the teams’ instability,” says Gerardo Esquivel, economics professor at the Colegio de México.

“They fire coaches all the time and don’t search for stability over the long-term that could be beneficial” for developing talent.

Coaching carrousel

Alleged meddling by owners is another matter.

"It was more or less the club owners that decided how the national team should be run, at least that's how things ran before I got there," ESPN FC reported former Mexico coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, who was fired during the 2010 World Cup qualifying rounds, saying in a recently published autobiography.

"There it was important to make allies with the people high up in the football establishment, as if that would help the national team win games." 

Mexico has cycled through four coaches in its 2014 World Cup qualifying season. It most recently turned the reins over to Miguel Herrera, coach of league champion and perennial power Club America, who brought ten of his team’s players.

The move was met with skepticism in some circles. The Club America owner, broadcasting giant Televisa – which is polemic for its alleged influence in the country’s political and cultural affairs – was accused of appropriating the national team for its own commercial ends. The national team is a strong symbol and considered a unifying force in Mexico.

“The team has stopped being something national and became something belonging to Televisa,” says Ilán Semo, political historian at the Iberoamerican University.

“A loss for the national side is seen as a loss for Televisa. That’s why some people want the team to lose,” Mr. Semo says.

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