- POSTED: 10 Oct 2013 11:41
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Mexico face a must-win World Cup qualifier against Panama on Friday or risk missing the tournament, costing millions in endorsements and breaking millions of hearts in the football-crazy nation.
MEXICO CITY: Mexico face a must-win World Cup qualifier against Panama on Friday or risk missing the tournament, costing millions in endorsements and breaking millions of hearts in the football-crazy nation.
Coming off a high after winning the 2012 London Olympics gold medal, the Mexicans came into the qualifying campaign as favourites as usual to cruise to next year's World Cup finals in Brazil.
But despite a pool of Europe-based talent that includes Manchester United's Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, they are dangerously close to missing the tournament for the first time since 1990 after winning only one qualifier.
"We must win. It's the only thing we have in mind," Hernandez said.
Mexico currently sit in fifth place in the six-team CONCACAF regional group while Panama hold the fourth spot that would qualify them for a play-off against New Zealand.
"El Tri" have only two games left to either snatch the play-off spot away from Panama or, with some help, secure the last of three direct qualifying spots.
The United States and Costa Rica have secured the first two slots while Honduras hold third place with 11 points.
Panama, who have never qualified for a World Cup finals before, are fourth with eight points, level with Mexico but ahead thanks to a better goal difference.
Mexico's football federation tried to shake things up last month by firing manager Jose Manuel de la Torre and replacing him with Victor Manuel Vucetich, known as "King Midas" for a golden touch that led Mexican clubs to several championships.
Vucetich inherited a squad that only managed four goals in eight games and was mired in tension off the field.
While he convinced goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who plays for French club Ajaccio, to come back after sitting out the last two games, Real Sociedad star forward Carlos Vela, who has also been at odds with the federation, refused to end his two-year boycott of the team.
Vucetich, however, voiced confidence that his squad will prevail when they host Panama in the 105,000-capacity Azteca stadium in Mexico City -- a usually imposing site where they endured an embarrassing defeat to Honduras last month.
"The group is gelling more and more every day and this gives us the serenity that we can come out victorious with this squad," said Vucetich, whose team will then face Costa Rica on Tuesday for the final qualifier while Panama will play the United States.
But after seeing their nation compete in 14 of the last 19 World Cups, Mexicans are nervous about the prospect of their team missing the cut.
Losing out on the World Cup would also come with a heavy price.
Rogelio Roa, director general of Mexican sports marketing firm Dreamatch Solutions, estimates that broadcasters, sponsors and other businesses stand to lose at least $600 million.
"I think that Mexico will qualify, but if they don't it will be an economic tragedy," Roa told AFP.
"But there is also another potential loss that is hard to quantify," he said. "There is a social aspect... If Mexico doesn't go to the World Cup it will hit people really hard, too."