Football: World Cup: Mexican hopes buoyed by a wave of optimism

Mexico 3 Pelaez 51, Hernandez 75, 84 South Korea 1 Ha Seok-ju 28 Att: 39,133
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The Independent Online
WHILE OTHER nations come and go, Mexico always seem to have at least a walk-on role in the greatest football show on earth. Thanks largely to the geography of the game - they qualify for France with ease from the Concacaf Group of countries - the hosts of 1970 and 1986 are playing in their 11th World Cup finals.

What chance this time of achieving more than their usual first-round exit? Fifa's rankings earlier this year placed Mexico fourth in the world and while that was surely a statistical blip, there were signs here on Saturday that they just might trouble one or two of the tournament's more fancied sides.

In particular, they appear to have a good balance between flare and work rate. The style is largely provided by Cuauhtemo Blanco, a striker with more than a passing resemblance to Sheffield Wednesday's Paolo Di Canio, and Luis Hernandez, a blond-haired striker known back home as "the Matador" because of his killer touch in front of goal.

When Mexico were coasting in the second half here, Blanco gave a series of demonstrations of his ball-skills. One trick, when he held the ball between his feet and then jumped with it between two South Korean defenders, drew prolonged cheers and applause from the thousands of Mexican supporters, who were revelling in their team's exuberant play.

Hernandez, who scored twice, is a late developer who recently caught the eye of Diego Maradona. After he had finished top scorer in last year's Copa America, the admiring Maradona persuaded his club, Boca Juniors, to sign him. However, the move was not a success - Hernandez played only four games largely because of the Argentine League's restrictions on foreign players - and a return home quickly followed. Hernandez, aged 29, has a reputation as a selfish player, but that can be said of many of the game's best strikers. He took both his goals with aplomb, converting a deep cross by Jesus Ramirez to give Mexico a 2-1 lead after 74 minutes and putting a seal on the victory with a powerful shot from the edge of the penalty area nine minutes later.

Ramirez, a midfielder in the Didier Deschamps mould, was the other player to impress. Always involved and ready to tackle and run in support of his colleagues, he was the fulcrum of the team's midfield.

The Mexicans themselves have every confidence they can progress. Ricardo Pelaez, the substitute whose equaliser from close range early in the second half, brought Mexico back into the game, said afterwards: "We've all come here with the intention of winning the World Cup, because if you don't approach it in that state of mind there's no point coming here."

Manuel Lapuente, the coach, who had been under fire from the Mexican press and public alike, after an indifferent World Cup warm-up campaign, simply sounded relieved. "I'm happy," he said. "We played well. This victory doesn't make me any more confident than I was before but I feel calmer and less nervous now."

Lapuente will know that his team will face stiffer challenges than that presented by South Korea, especially after the Asian side were reduced to 10 men on half an hour after the dismissal of Ha Seok-ju. Two minutes earlier, Ha had given his side the lead when his free kick was deflected into the net by Duilio Davinio, but he was rightly shown the red card after a nasty tackle from behind on Ramirez.

While Mexico's main aim must now be to beat Belgium in Bordeaux next Saturday, the Koreans will reflect on what was probably their best chance of winning their first match at a World Cup finals. This is their fifth appearance in the finals, and they were desperate not to go into the 2002 tournament, which they will co-host with Japan, still seeking to break their duck.

Their negative approach did the Koreans little favour, but even more of the same can be expected in their next two matches. "We will have to be even more defensive and only go forward on the counter-attack," the coach, Cha Bum-kun, said ruefully.

SOUTH KOREA (4-5-1): Kim Byung-ji (Ulsan Hyundai); Lee Min-sung (Pusan Daewoo), Hong Myung-bo (Bellmare Hiratsuka), Kim Tae-young (Chunnam Dragons), Ha Seok-ju (Cerezo Osaka); Choi Jong-soo (Sangmoo), Kim Do-keun (Chunnam Dragons), Noh Jung-yoon (NAC Breda), Yoo Sang-chul (Ulsan Hyundai), Lee Sang-yoon (Chunan Ilhwa); Kim Do-hoon (Vissel Kobe). Substitutes: Jang Hyung-seok (Ulsan Hyundai) for Kim Jung-yoon, 56; Choi Sung-yong (Sangmoo) for Kim Do-keun, 61; Seo Jung-won (Strasbourg) for Choi Jong-soo, 72.

MEXICO (4-5-1): Campos (UNAM); Pardo (Atlas), Suarez (Guadalajara), Davino (America), Luna (UNAM); Ramirez (Guadalajara), Ordiales (Toluca), Lara (America), Garcia Aspe (America), Blanco (Necaxa); Hernandez (Necaxa). Substitutes: Arellano (Guadalajara) for Ordiales, h-t; Pelaez (America) for Luna, h-t; Bernal (Monterrey) for Garcia Aspe, 72.

Referee: G Benko (Austria).