Touch down in Brussels for El Tri was mundane at best. The dreary concrete European capital offered little adulation for Mexico, who commandingly qualified for the 2018 World Cup, topping the hexagonal on 21 points. The sixth ‘Hex’ provided a bonus: the second-hand joy over the United States’ dramatic elimination in Trinidad and Tobago. This trip to Belgium, and next week to Poland, isn’t the most glamorous, but does mark a pivotal new stage in Mexico’s preparations for next year’s tournament.
El Tri is enjoying the luxury of having passed the finish line already. Honduras and Peru, from the CONMEBOL/CONCACAF zones, face a dogfight with Australia and New Zealand, respectively, on the way to Russia. Conversely, Mexico can begin thinking about the tournament in earnest, addressing problems, fine-tuning inadequacies and, above all, looking at team selection. At the micro level, it’s a drawn-out process, but in the larger scheme of things, just two FIFA international breaks remain until the World Cup.
That’s precious little time for head coach Juan Carlos Osorio to assess the weaknesses and strengths of his team, but these two friendlies–the first for El Tri on European soil in three years–will provide a much needed benchmark, as they take on two of Europe’s ascendant World Cup participants. “We’ve always talked about competition being a fundamental factor for human beings to improve, and it’s the same in football,” said Osorio. “[The games are] going to show where we are at and what we need to improve.”
Belgium is stern opposition. The Belgians were eliminated from both the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016 at the quarter-finals stages, a disappointing result for the brigade of golden boys who were supposed to supplant the country’s outdated blue collar soccer style with radiant and skilful ‘ball-et’. Yet, everything about the ‘Red Devils’ remains sexy, a team seemingly forever in the ascendency, in spite of discouraging performances: the bulk of the Belgian squad plies its trade in Europe’s top league, even in the absence of Atletico Madrid’s Yannick Carrasco, Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini, Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld and Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany. Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard are the king pins of Roberto Martinez’s team. The former has been dazzling in the English Premier League so far this season, and the latter has claim to being the best player in the league over the last 5 years.
Mexico’s squad pales in comparison, at least on a pure talent level: Javier Hernández, Hector Moreno, Carlos Salcedo, Andrés Guardado and Carlos Vela play in Europe’s top five, but without the great luminosity and esteem of their Belgian counterparts. However, in a recent interview with ESPN, Martinez did have effusive praise for Chicharito, who he tried to sign while the Everton boss: ”He’s a player with so much intelligence with his movement,” said Belgium’s coach. “It was never possible [to sign him], but yes he’s been one of the players that we’ve followed closely. I think the great quality of Javier Hernandez is that he’s exceptional in the penalty area. In the box is one of the zones in which there is least difference between distinct leagues.”
The 90 minutes against Belgium–and the 90 against Poland–will also allow Osorio to take a closer look at some players, established and fringe. Giovani dos Santos is, as ever, under scrutiny. Jurgen Damm, Hugo Ayala, and Jesus Gallardo are among the other players who will want to impress Osorio on the continent.
“It’s a great opportunity for Mexican football to compete with two very high level national teams,” said Osorio. “We’ve spent the last week analyzing, and the fact that a high percentage of [Belgium’s] players are in top six clubs in the Premier League and all have opportunities and play internationally in the Champions League makes them very strong … They are well coached and a high-level team.”
Still, for El Tri it may be difficult to get a result against Belgium, or even Poland, who possess other virtues: organization, discipline, and the almighty firepower of Bayern striker Robert Lewandowski. But it’s a prerequisite for Osorio and Mexico to go toe-to-toe with teams of this pedigree and magnitude: after all, if they want to end the four-game curse at the World Cup, a hex on the country since 1986, Mexico will need to beat teams of this caliber in Russia. Otherwise, it’ll be yet another round of 16 exit and 4 more years of “what if?”