Football / World Cup: Mexicans ride to finals on crest of wave: Sanchez books safe passage to USA '94 while Canada are forced to wait

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The Independent Online
A SPLIT within the football authorities over TV rights, the rejection by the national manager of demands to recall an ageing star, an away game played in a violent atmosphere with missiles hurled by the crowd. . .

Sounds familiar? No, not the Premier League and Graham Taylor's England, but part of the rich tapestry of the Concacaf World Cup qualifying zone, which finished on Sunday with Mexico beating Canada 2-1 in Toronto to become the first nation to join the hosts and holders in USA '94.

Canada, needing a win to advance, had hoped that the frozen north would come to their aid, just as the heat and altitude in Mexico's Aztec Stadium had undone them a fortnight before, when their legs had turned to rubber in a 4-0 beating.

Yet though the ruts and bumps of the recently thawed Varsity Stadium pitch made the early going uncomfortable for the Mexicans, who fell behind to a headed goal from West Ham's Alex Bunbury, the balmy 70F temperatures helped them regain their composure. Hugo Sanchez stabbed home the equaliser , and six minutes from time Francisco Cruz made Mexico's passage safe when he rolled the ball past Ipswich's Craig Forrest in the Canadian goal.

Canada's prize for finishing second ahead of El Salvador and Honduras is a round-the-world ticket to play off against either Australia or New Zealand, followed by a further repechage against a South American team.

Though Canada's manager, Bobby Lenarduzzi, who spent four years on Reading's books, has done well to take his collection of Europe-based players, semi-pros and students so close to their second finals in eight years, the team could expect at best a row of 4.9s for artistic impression.

'We don't play it around much at the back, we get it forward early to our two front men,' said Forrest, who with his Ipswich team-mate, Frank Yallop, the former Oldham and WBA midfielder Carl Valentine, and Bunbury forms the side's backbone.

While they got walloped in Mexico, Canada had more success in El Salvador, where they got two points but frayed nerves after a taste of Vietnam. In the thus-named cheapest top tier section of San Salvador's Cuscatlan Stadium, fans habitually express their displeasure by hurling objects on to the field or the crowd below.

Dead cats, dead iguanas, bags of urine and excrement have all been recorded. Canada got off lightly. 'Bits of ice, pieces of 4x2 wood came flying over, the odd rock pulled from the stadium wall, bags of water. . .at least, I think it was water,' Forrest said.

Mexico too got the treatment in Honduras, where local frustration at their team's failure to live up to their pre-tournament billing boiled over after a 4-1 defeat in which two Hondurans and a Mexican were sent off. The teams were locked in afterwards as fans destroyed vehicles and fought running battles with riot police.

'We fell victim to an excess of triumphalism,' said Chelato Ucles, who led a more disciplined Honduran side to the Spanish World Cup in 1982. 'We Hondurans have a defect of seeing Mexico as a giant, so when we lose to them we feel this impotence which turns people into hooligans.'

Mexico's qualification is a triumph for their manager, Miguel Mejia Baron, brought in when his predecessor, Cesar Luis Menotti, was driven out by a power struggle within the Mexican federation.

The Argentinian's troubles began when he fell foul of the powerful private Mexican TV company, Televisa, by refusing to select Hugo Sanchez, who now plays for a Televisa-owned team. But when the man who appointed Menotti, the federation president Francisco Ibarra, was ousted in an internal coup prompted by Televisa over TV rights, Menotti found himself in an untenable position. Mejia was handed the poisoned chalice.

Somehow the former Monterrey coach brought the team together. Sanchez was recalled, two internationals alongside whom he refused to play over a payments dispute were dropped and, after losing in San Salvador, Mexico ran in five wins on the trot.

'After what went before, Mejia has regained a lot of credibility for Mexican football,' one Mexico City journalist said. After Sunday, he has also become a national hero.

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