Mexico’s maverick flatters to deceive

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What a piece of work is Ricardo La Volpe. The Mexico coach staggered into the media zone after last week’s win over Iran looking like he had just gone 10 rounds with Mike Tyson.

He had had to work hard for the 3-1 victory on a scorching hot day, making two half-time substitutions that eventually had the desired effect as Brazilian-born Zinha took control of the match in the final quarter, in spite of an additional setback when striker Jared Borgetti was injured.

He offered only a gravelly chuckle when asked what he had said to his players at half-time. With his goatee beard and arching black eyebrows, his look is pitched between Billy Connolly, an old-style Spanish caballero, the sort who might carry a silver-topped cane, and the old Doctor Who villain, The Master.

As if that were not eye-catching enough, he has taken to coming to matches at this World Cup wearing a tie with a brightly coloured dragon printed on it. Then again, he belongs to an eccentric breed – he was the third-string goalkeeper in Argentina’s 1978 World Cup-winning squad.

What a contrast with the man who took Mexico to the finals four years ago, Javier Aguirre, so clean-cut he might have been a Procter & Gamble executive.

The transformation seems to have rubbed off on one or two of the Mexican players: Gerardo Torrado, whom I had last seen running Italy ragged in Oita, Japan, as a shaven-headed midfield enforcer, now sports a hairstyle that owes much to Art Garfunkel, circa “Bridge Over Troubled Water”.

But if the sartorial sense is more flamboyant, Mexico’s style of play under La Volpe has become less so. The team that tormented, but failed to kill off, Italy in 2002 featured dazzling wing play. The short-passing team that the Argentine coach has assembled is much more inclined to attack through the centre, with dead-ball specialist Pável Pardo and captain Rafael Márquez dictating the tempo.

This caused them problems against the well-drilled Angolan midfield in Hanover on Friday night. La Volpe seemed to acknowledge this, sending on his smooth-as-silk wingers Jesús Arellano and Ramón Morales, who had been bench-warming in Germany until then.

But the African team’s confidence was rising and they duly held out for a goalless draw, helped by an inspired performance from clubless, but far from clueless, goalkeeper Joao Ricardo and central defender Kali.

Though we should have a better idea after Wednesday’s clash with Portugal, La Volpe’s men look likely knockout-stage participants, but unlikely winners. Twas ever thus: the green-shirted Mexicans have reached the knockout phase in the last three World Cups, but have only ever got as far as the quarter-finals on the two occasions they hosted the tournament in 1970 and 1986.

Can they match that this time? Perhaps – if the draw favours them. Argentina, on present form, would be too strong, but Holland, their other possible round-two opponents, look far from vintage. Mexico badly need the punctilious Borgetti back, but if the Angola result has not shaken their self-belief, the gruff La Volpe may be here to entertain us for a while yet.

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