Mexico claims its fourth title

The victorious Mexico team with the CONCACAF Gold Cup. — Pic. REUTERS-

HISTORY mattered more than reputation as Mexico annexed its fourth title, first of the new millennium in the CONCACAF Gold Cup football tournament while beating World Champion Brazil in front of an estimated 80,000 strong hysterical home fans at the Estadio Azteca in Ciudad de Mexico.

HISTORY mattered more than reputation as Mexico annexed its fourth title, first of the new millennium in the CONCACAF Gold Cup football tournament while beating World Champion Brazil in front of an estimated 80,000 strong hysterical home fans at the Estadio Azteca in Ciudad de Mexico. The win ensures Mexico a berth in the 2005 Confederations Cup tournament scheduled to be held in Germany. For the first time since the 1991 edition the final of this event involving the teams of North and Central America and the Caribbean, went into extra time. And the moment that triggered the rapturous applause came in the seventh minute of extended play, courtesy Daniel Osorno.

The `golden goal' brought an abrupt end to the keenly contested tie leaving the stadium engulfed in a sea of emotion. Not surprising in a region where football's popularity is unmatched and more so when the reputation of the rival is taken into account. Osorno thus was the hero of the moment but the hero of the competition undoubtedly was Mexico's goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez, who did not let in even a single goal in the competition. This was only the second occasion that a team did not concede a goal in the entire competition. Mexico itself had this distinction earlier in 1996. Deservedly Sanchez was declared the Best Goalkeeper while Mexico's forward, Jesus Arellano was adjudged the Most Valuable Player.

Mexico's Daniel Osorno (extreme right) scoring the golden goal against Brazil in the final . — Pic. REUTERS-

It is a different matter that Brazil was without its stars like Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Roberto Carlos. In fact the country had decided to send its Under-23 Olympic team to help it earn rich practice and the fact that the squad reached the final is a reflection of the kind of reserve strength the country has. Only experience was missed but Technical Director, Ricardo Gomes preferred to blame it on the lack of preparation of the team and then of course the effects of an overwhelming home support for Mexico. Nonetheless Mexico's Technical Director, Ricardo Lavolpe paid tributes to the young Brazilians by stating that "the final was a difficult game. The Brazilians do not easily give up."

That it all boiled down to that single goal is testimony to the lively contest though it was Mexico which kept the attack going where Brazil all the while waited for a breakaway goal, which was never to come. Jesus Arellano's early strike on the crossbar and Brazilian goalkeeper Gomes baulking Jared Borgetti and Luis Perez formed the appetisers for the rousing contest. Pavel Pardo then tested Gomes with a curling free kick before Osorno forced the Brazilian goalkeeper to stretch to the limit to negotiate a scorcher. The cry of "ole, ole" rose from the crowd as the `tricolor' (as Mexico is referred to) virtually lay siege at the Brazil-end. Seldom did the Brazilians show the enterprise the team is famous for. Notably the efforts of two new sensations, Diego and Robinho, whose ball skills impressed even the legendary Pele, hardly passed muster. Perhaps it had to do with the conditions which the Mexicans were better adapted to.

The loss meant Brazil had slipped twice to Mexico in this tournament, having been beaten in the group league earlier. On that occasion too it was a solitary goal that separated the two, Borgetti doing the damage towards the end stages of the match. Robinho did sparkle occasionally then but Brazil's ill-luck that day was Salvadoran referee Rodolfo Sibrian overlooking a foul outside the penalty area by goalkeeper Sanchez. But overall it was just as well that Brazil did not emerge winner for it would not have been the `official champion'. The tournament rules specifiy that only a team from the Confederation can be declared a winner because the winner has to represent the Continent in the Confederations Cup event. Thus if Brazil had won there would have been a need for a whole lot of permutations and combinations involving Mexico and the two teams which contested for the third place — USA and Costa Rica, the finalists on the last occasion. Incidentally, USA, the defending champion grabbed the third place.

Oswaldo Sanchez of Mexico, who did not let in a single goal in the competition, with the Best Goalkeeper award. — Pic. AP-

This year's tournament, hosted jointly by Mexico and US had a field of 12 teams, 10 from CONCACAF and two invitees from South America. The US, which for the first time topped the FIFA-Coca-Cola ranking in the Caribbean and North America zone, had keenly looked forward to retaining the trophy. But then with teams like Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil, it was never an easy task. Still relishing home conditions, US did progress upto the semi-final before Brazil, to whom it lost in the Confederations Cup in France, stopped its run in what proved to be an unbelievable swing of fortunes at Miami.

Leading by a Carlos Bocanegra's headed goal, little after the first hour, US looked all set for booking a berth in the final when in the 89th minute Kaka equalised off a rebound from goalkeeper Kessey Keller. Substitute Ewerthon was the cause for the rebound as he had tested the goalkeeper with a stiff shot. There was a cry of ` off side' from US players when Kaka scored but the equaliser stood and the contest entered extra time for Diego to wrap up the match with a penalty conversion after Cory Gibbs had used his hands to deflect a goal-bound ball. US had beaten Cuba 5-0 in the quarter-final, a match which saw Landon Donovan score four goals, an effort that finally helped him tally with Costa Rican Walter Centano for the Top Scorer prize. His performance had raised hopes for US against Brazil but things went in a different direction.

On the other side, Mexico after getting past Brazil right in its first match was unstoppable and stormed into the sem-final with a 5-0 verdict over Jamaica. Costa Rica was its next hurdle and instantly memories of its loss in the 2002 World Cup qualifiers loomed large. But there were no hiccups on this occasion in front of the numerous home fans at the Aztec stadium, none symbolising the mood of the Mexican camp than Rafael Marquez who virtually scored the `goal' of the tournament with a 45 yard try. It was the defender's first International appearance after signing for Barcelona. "It took the wind out of our sails", remarked Costa Rican Coach Steve Sampson about that goal which proved the turning point of a well contested match. Borgetti then confirmed Mexico's progress with the side's second goal later. Costa Rica had earlier thundered past El Salvador with a 5-2 margin.

Costa Rica's Steven Bryce (left) and United States' Frankie Hejduk battle for control of the ball during the match for third place. United States won 3-2. — Pic. AP-

On to the final with confidence riding high, the Argentine Coach of the Mexico team Ricardo Lavolpe was emboldened to remark "we are going to show Brazil how much we have progressed". This was a win Lavolpe would long cherish for he had been given specific charge to rebuild the national side after its loss to US in the second round of last year's World Cup.

As for the others in the field, Canada, winner of the 2000 Gold Cup, was a casuality in the preliminary phase itself. Suddenly the earlier title-win seemed a distant memory. Jamaica, the 1998 France World Cup participant, too faded away with just a win over Guatemala to show and a thrashing by Mexico to remember. Honduras was in the tough company of Mexico and Brazil and needed to do something extraordinary to escape the number three spot. There was little to interest Martinique, the tiny Caribbean nation, except the name. Still the out-and-out minnows did not disgrace even in failure.