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El Tri's Trials

Bruce Arena's U.S. squad may be America's official World Cup entry, but Mexico's "El Tri" will be by far the most popular team in cities like Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles, and to the millions of Mexican immigrants who live in them. How far that support -- and the team -- will go is another matter: El Tri (so-called after the Mexican flag's tricolor) has not been at its best in recent years, trailing regional peers Costa Rica and the U.S. -- not traditionally considered to be up to Mexico's level -- and barely qualifying for the World Cup. And the team isn't necessarily expected to get past the Cup's first-round play in group "G," which includes Croatia, Ecuador and Italy. The Mexicans are expected to beat Ecuador, but will be lucky if they can tie Croatia or Italy, the best defensive team in the world.

One thing Mexico has going for it is a familiarity with adversity. During the 1960s, the team embodied traditional Mexican shyness, which didn't help much when playing bigger and worldlier foreign squads. Short, brown-skinned and with inferiority complexes, the players were then known to their countrymen as "Los Ratones Verdes (The Green Mice)." But then came World Cup '98, when the mice turned into cats, surprising everyone by passing through to the second round -- thanks to the dazzling footwork and goal scoring of Luis "El Matador" Hernandez and Cuauhtémoc "Temo" Blanco -- before being narrowly eliminated by Germany. That relative high didn't last long, however, and since then El Tri has been in a slump.

Part of the problem is age. While the U.S. team has been invigorated by new and/or youthful players such as Clint Mathis, Landon Donovan, Josh Wolf and DaMarcus Beasley, El Tri often relies on veterans like goalie Jorge Campos and defender Claudio Suarez (now out due to an injury). And though former Galaxy forward Hernandez remains a good goal scorer, at age 33 he is far from being the striker he once was.

What El Tri does have going for it, according to Rigoberto Cervantes, an L.A.-based soccer writer who has covered four World Cups, is an outspoken manager, Javier "El Vasco" Aguirre, and a number of players who have honed their skills on European clubs. Gerardo Torrado and Juan Francisco Palencia play in the Spanish league, while Rafael "Rafa" Marquez has become one of the world's best defenders playing for France's Monaco.

But the key is Blanco. Though plagued by injuries, Temo has played brilliantly in the last few games. Whether dribbling unorthodox moves past defenders, executing beautiful passes to strikers or scoring goals himself, he is clearly on another level. "[Blanco] is not afraid of playing against Europe's best teams," says Cervantes. "He grew up in the streets playing in the rough neighborhoods of Mexico City. He knows how to use his street smarts to outwit rivals. He has the ability to make or score goals against anybody."

Cervantes believes that if Mexico wants to have a chance of passing to the second round, Blanco and his teammates must defeat the tough Croatians in its first match. To do that, El Tri will need a little help from the futbol gods, as the team got in the '98 Cup. And as El Tri's fans know, anything's possible. "If a computer were to coldly analyze the situation, player for player, Croatia is a far better team," says Cervantes. "But in soccer, things do not go as planned by a computer."

Sunday, June 2 -- Mexico vs. Croatia, 11:15 p.m.

Saturday, June 8 -- Mexico vs. Ecuador, 11:15 p.m.

Thursday, June 13 -- Italy vs. Mexico, 4 a.m.

All games will be aired live by (Univision) KMEX-TV 34.


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