Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Soccer: Breathtaking obstacles in path of Azteca win

The match at Azteca Stadium is expected to be a sellout. Photo / AP
The match at Azteca Stadium is expected to be a sellout. Photo / AP

Next Thursday, the All Whites will be entering the most formidable fortress in world sport.

Forget Old Trafford, the Nou Camp or the Maracana. Forget Eden Park or Ellis Park. Definitely forget Wembley. There is nothing that comes close to the challenge of the Azteca Stadium.

First, there is the altitude (2300m above sea level; rugby's Ellis Park is 1700m) which makes lungs bust, hearts race and muscles burn. Add in the air pollution, particularly for matches during the day - Mexico City's smog has long been regarded as the worst in the Americas, even worse than Santiago or Sao Paulo - and just breathing becomes an effort.

One Mexican writer refers to the "perverse triangle" of heat, smog and altitude that has created Mexico's home town advantage over the decades.

Then there is the atmosphere created by 107,000 fanatical supporters. The match this week is expected to be a sell-out, creating an environment as hostile as any in world football.

Mexico has an incredible record at the Azteca. Despite their recent struggles during the 'hexagonal' qualifying series, El Tri have lost only two of their last 78 official matches at the stadium. That includes the World Cups they hosted in 1970 and 1986.

Few teams go home happy from the Azteca Stadium. The United States have been playing Mexico for decades and have never won there in a competitive fixture.

Mexico had never lost a World Cup qualifying match there until 2001, when beaten 2-1 by Costa Rica - and that was a dead rubber, as Mexico had already qualified for the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan.

However, the result was still a shock and became so infamous among Mexican fans that it was referred to as the Aztecazo.

They suffered a second Aztecazo in September, when Mexico were stunned 2-1 by Honduras after taking the lead. That result cost coach Jose Manuel de la Torre, in charge since the start of 2011, his job (though Mexico has since changed coaches once again).

"It will be like something we have never encountered before," says Phoenix and All Whites attacker Jeremy Brockie. "I played in front of around 80,000 against China at the Olympics [in 2008] but this will be a very, very different atmosphere."

"They are such a massive football nation," says Leo Bertos. "Playing at the Azteca will be almost as good as playing at a World Cup. There is so much history there and we will have to play the game of our lives."

Like Brockie, Bertos has experienced big crowds before, particularly when the All Whites played at the 90,000 capacity Rose Bowl in Los Angeles in a match against Mexico in the lead-up to the 2010 World Cup, but he concedes this will be something "quite unforgettable".

Quite apart from the Mexican exploits at the Azteca Stadium, its legendary status was born at the 1970 World Cup. It was Pele's last international, as the magnificent Brazilians, considered by some the greatest team ever, overwhelmed Italy 4-1 in the final.

The magic of the arena was only enhanced in 1986, thanks to Diego Maradona, arguably the greatest individual player in the history of the sport (as they like to say in Buenos Aires, 'Pele was the best ... but Maradona was better').

The Argentine scored his 'Hand of God' goal against England at the Azteca in the quarter-finals of that tournament. Minutes later in the same game, Maradona dribbled past six defenders to score what many regard as the greatest goal in World Cup history, commemorated by a plaque outside the stadium.

He nabbed two more impressive solo goals at the same venue in the semifinals against Belgium before setting up the winner in the final against West Germany.

- Herald on Sunday

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