After the goal-fest in Munich at Friday night's opening fixture, it might seem a tall order to expect the remaining first- round games to match that level of entertainment. But thanks to the eccentric, unpredictable behaviour of the moustachioed Mexico coach Ricardo La Volpe, today's Group D meeting between Iran and Mexico should not disappoint.
Once the reserve goalkeeper for Argentina's 1978 World Cup winning squad in Buenos Aires, La Volpe, 54, is renowned for volatile antics which can be quite a spectacle. Iran should beware not only his pyrotechnic style of instruction from the coaching area, but also his taste in clothes. In this kitsch host nation, where colours are apparently thrown together to attract attention, La Volpe, a committed smoker, stands tall with his weakness for the scruffy-jeans-with-smart-jacket combination, often allied to a shirt of loud Teutonic hues.
The man is a sideshow all of his own as he leads Mexico into their 12th World Cup. This, of course, should not distract from his work as a coach with a Mexican team he has guided onwards and upwards through the world rankings.
Victories in the past year against both Argentina and Brazil prove he and his young, dynamic team have the talent and physical strength to perform at a high level, though questions must be asked about the level of experience in the squad. His dictatorial style has led also to spectacular fall-outs with some of his senior players and the media.
When, following defeats by France and Holland in warm-up matches, he was criticised for leaving the popular and fêted striker Francisco Fonseca on the bench, La Volpe fell into a fit of rage that Monty Python would have turned into a rib-tickling sketch. Fonseca complained that he should have played against the Dutch; La Volpe retaliated, told the players he was the boss, said Fonseca was a stupid moaner and walked into a row with the player's club, Cruz Azul, whose director Alfredo Alvarez waded in with a tirade at the national coach.
The outcome was a sickly public relations exercise to paper over the cracks. Fonseca announced he was with Mexico "till death us do part", and La Volpe became even more erratic and autocratic. He refused to speak to the media and ignored the public. Already outraged by his inclusion of two players born outside Mexico in the squad, the Mexican media have been torn between a natural exuberance and love for their nation's campaign and a bitter irritation at their coach's behaviour.
The inclusion of the forward Guillermo Franco, born in Argentina, and the Brazil-born midfielder Antonio Naelson has been the greatest of his faux pas in his relations with a media buoyed by his claim that Mexico can reach the semi-finals after progressing from an apparently soft opening group with today's opponents, Angola and Portugal.
"We have set high objectives, new goals and we are seeking to finish in the last four," he said, by way of explaining his inclusion of Franco, who plays for the European Cup semi-finalists Villarreal in Spain, and Naelson. "They are Mexico citizens and the best footballers in their positions." These decisions have particularly upset Mexico's greatest-ever player, Hugo Sanchez, the former Real Madrid striker and national icon. He has called for La Volpe to be dismissed. A public poll has also suggested that the vast majority of Mexicans think the squad should be picked only from true Mexico-born players.
The controversial inclusions merely added to a simmering row over other dodgy decisions - the omission of Cuauhtemoc Blanco, arguably Mexico's most influential playmaker, and the inclusion of La Volpe's son-in-law Rafael Garcia, who had never been an established member of the squad before.
When all of this came to a head in one recent media conference, the coach screamed at his inquisitors: "You know nothing about football! Nothing! All you want is to attack me and I don't want you to break my balls before the World Cup."
After more than three years in the job, he is a tough survivor of football management in a country where national coaches usually come and go with the precision and rapidity of Germany's inter-city trains. And he does have some high-quality players in his squad, too. These include the Bolton Wanderers forward Jared Borgetti and Barce-lona's tough central defender Rafael Marquez, who recently received a European Cup victor's medal in Paris.
They are players who have seen what it takes to reach the top level and will be expected to provide the leadership in a dressing room ruled by a coach's iron will. Whether the mixture is as successful as it has been volatile will only be known after today's intriguing fixture.Reuse content