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

Soccer: Mexico facing white out

There is US$600 million, riding on a Mexico win

All White, Winston Reid. Photo / Getty Images
All White, Winston Reid. Photo / Getty Images

If the All Whites, as expected, face Mexico in November's World Cup playoffs, it won't just be New Zealand versus the might of Mexico - it will be the Kiwis against the rest of the footballing world.

In terms of playing numbers, economic power and supporter base Mexico are in the top five nations in the football world and their absence from Brazil would be a severe blow to the tournament and its related economies.

If Mexico were somehow put out by New Zealand, the overall impact has been estimated to be upwards of US$600 million ($725 million) to the tournament.

"The economic impact of Mexico not making the World Cup would be immense," says Mexican football historian and author Leon Krauze. "One sports marketing analyst has estimated that the impact would be around $600m if you count sponsorship, television deals, advertising revenue and the lead up matches - and I think that is a conservative figure. Aside from Mexico, look at the American economy and the impact that the team has there, especially in the south-west - California, Arizona, Texas - it's absolutely immense.

For Mexican and Hispanic companies the impact of the Mexican team not being there would be huge, almost impossible to measure."

According to Krauze, sales of the Mexican team shirt at the 2010 World Cup outstripped all others (more than 1.2 million units sold) and around 15,000 Mexicans travelled to South Africa to follow El Tri.

That figure would be expected to double - or triple - with the quadrennial tournament held in the Americas for the first time since 1994 and only the third time since 1970.

From this distance it's perhaps difficult to understand that vast, uber economy that is Mexican football. The top two television companies (TV Azteca and Televisa) own several professional teams between them while Telecommunications tycoon Carlos Slim (the billionaire who is currently ranked as the second richest man on the planet) took a stake in two first division teams last year. Televisa is also the principal owner of the Azteca Stadium.

"Football is huge for the television companies and the national team is their biggest product," says Mexican football journalist Martin del Palacio. "(Non qualification) would be a catastrophe for them and it also affects the entire economy of the Mexican FA."

With only two matches to play in the final stages of the North and Central American playoffs, Mexico sit in fifth place, three points back from Honduras and behind Panama on goal difference. La Verde has only won one of their eight games, scoring just four goals and dismissing two coaches in the process. Mexico haven't missed a World Cup since 1982 and while there have been occasional struggles, it is hard to remember anything like this.

"It's a huge crisis at the moment," says Krauze. "We had high hopes for this team - they are part of the golden generation that won the Under-17 World Cup in 2005 - and the mood has gone from surprise to anger to despair. We are on the brink and it is no longer a given that we will qualify."

Still, Mexico remain the most likely opponents for the All Whites in the home and away games on November 14 and 20 respectively. It will be difficult to catch Honduras (who host bottom of the table Jamaica in the next round, knowing three points will guarantee direct qualification) but Mexico will be favoured to beat Panama at home next month, in a match that should decide fourth place. The Mexicans have been bolstered by the return of star players Carlos Vela (Real Sociedad) and Memo Ochoa (Ajaccio), both of whom fell out with the previous coaching regime.

"It is not something that anyone had considered a few months ago but now is a definite reality." says del Palacio, of a possible match up with the All Whites. "Anything can happen in a home and away tie and we are very aware of what the (All Whites) did at the World Cup."

The first leg would see the All Whites face the hardest match in their history, even more difficult than the famous game against China in Singapore in 1981 or the clash with then world champions Italy at the 2010 World Cup.

"Mexico's main advantage will be the Azteca Stadium and the altitude (2,421m) of Mexico City," says Krauze. "With everything on the line it is going to be insane. To play at Azteca Stadium, especially during the day is very tough, particularly for teams that are not used to the stadium or the altitude. There is smog, pollution, passionate fans - the stadium is going to be boiling."

While New Zealand is justifiably proud of the All Blacks' unbeaten home record at Eden Park since 1994, the Mexican team have lost just twice in 77 official matches at the Azteca Stadium, stretching back almost 50 years. The stadium, which is the fifth largest in the world, has a capacity of more than 105,000 and also witnessed icons Pele and Diego Maradona lifting the World Cup.

"I'm sure that the Mexican Football Federation will ask for the match to be played during the day so that the All Whites go through hard times ... with breathing, the sun and everything," adds Krauze.

"Playing there is a test of courage and endurance most of all and not an experience that I would wish on any team. It's no coincidence that Mexico has been basically unbeaten in official matches there for half a century. But who knows? It could go down as golden chapter in New Zealand's sporting history. New Zealand is known for courage in sport and they are going to need it."

Mexico football

• World ranked 21

• Have qualified for the World Cup on 14 occasions, but only reached the quarterfinals twice, both when the tournament was played on home soil (1970 and 1986)

• Their failure to progress beyond the second round in their last five World Cups has led to a common refrain after each tournament - "Jugamos como nunca, perdmos como siempre." ("We played like never before and lost like always.")

• Famous players have included Hugo Sanchez, Blanco, Javier (Chicharito) Hernandez and Rafael Marquez

- Herald on Sunday

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