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COMMENTARY : WORLD CUP USA ’94 : Mexico Could Kick Itself, but It Would Only Miss

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TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

The mood will not be festive when millions turn on their television sets in Mexico this afternoon to watch Italy play Bulgaria in a World Cup semifinal.

They will do so with heavy hearts, even anger.

The World Cup is like all other sports tournaments. It is filled with might-have-beens, nearly-weres and wanna-bes.

Mexico is a should-have-been.

Eight days ago, in the same Giants Stadium where Italy and Bulgaria will hold the captive attention of billions in the soccer world today, Mexico lost one of the stranger and more controversial games of World Cup ’94.

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Making this all worse for Mexico, of course, is that Bulgaria, which beat Mexico in that game, then went on to stun defending champion Germany in the quarterfinals. Yes, Bulgaria, the country that had never won a World Cup game before this tournament, that came in as a 50-1 longshot; Bulgaria, the team that opened this tournament with a 3-0 loss to Nigeria and that hired as its coach a man named Dimitar Penev, who had played defender on the Bulgarian national teams of 1966, 1970 and 1974 that never won a World Cup game.

And yes, Bulgaria, which had admitted after beating Mexico on penalty kicks that it had played through 30 minutes of overtime, with the score tied at 1-1, without trying to score. That adds up to an admission that, when you are not the best team on the field, you hold on for the crapshoot, or the “coin toss,” as Mexico’s Hugo Sanchez called it. Apparently, Bulgaria figured that rolling the dice in the penalty kick phase was a much safer bet than playing the Mexicans head on.

All of which brings us to the central figure in Mexico’s current mood, Coach Miguel Mejia Baron. From all appearances, Mejia Baron’s strategy against Bulgaria was straight out of ancient Rome: While Nero fiddled, Rome burned; while Mejia Baron twiddled, Mexico crumbled.

In the 58th minute, with both goals in the game already scored, Mexico lost one of its three star forwards, Luis Garcia, to a second yellow card. It was a ticky-tacky call, but it appeared to be one of those officiating even-it-up situations, since Bulgaria’s midfielder, Emil Kremenliev, had been sent off eight minutes earlier with his second yellow on a similar borderline call.

One of Mexico’s two other star forwards was Luis Alves, a rangy, hard-working runner who continued to sprint the wings and catch up to long passes from his teammates directed toward the scoring area. The third was Sanchez, the best-known Mexican player who, while in the twilight of his career, still had a name and a charisma that would certainly get the attention of any opposing team.

But while Alves, now left to go it alone against a sagging Bulgarian defense, ran more post patterns than a wide receiver in the old AFL, Sanchez remained on the bench. After Garcia’s departure, Mexico’s offense looked like Al Davis’ Raiders: Send your speedster deep and throw him the bomb. The Mexicans played it a lot like a desperate NHL team: Dump the puck and chase it. Only Alves was the only one doing any chasing.

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Each team had played a man short for the majority of the second half with the departures of Kremenliev and Garcia. In overtime, which consists of two 15-minute halves, Penev substituted for two players, the maximum allowed.

Mejia Baron made no changes. His midfield gathered up the ball as best it could and sent it in the direction of a flying Alves, who was always going one on four, or one on five. Eventually, the Mexican team, all 10 members who were to play 120 minutes, were exhausted; Alves was beyond fatigue and approaching collapse.

Bulgaria, certainly tired, too, but having the benefit of at least two fresh players, won the penalty kick stage--and the game--when the first three Mexicans to kick either missed or were stopped.

In penalty kicks, three failures in a round of five is unthinkable. But not making any of the first three is inconceivable--unless all three players are too tired to even swing their legs. The first penalty kicker for Mexico was Alberto Garcia Aspe, one of the best ballhandlers and dribblers in the tournament. Shockingly, Garcia Aspe knocked his kick, from a penalty spot 12 yards away, over the crossbar. In fact, the only Mexican player to make his penalty kick was defender Claudio Suarez, who had, during the game, taken no shots and done almost nothing on offense.

Bulgaria, on the other hand, got one of its successful penalty shots from one of its fresh substitutes, Boncho Guentchev, and had its two star players, Yordan Letchkov and Hristo Stoitchkov, set to kick in the Nos. 4 and 5 spots. Mexico had only a wilted Alves waiting at No. 5, since Mejia Baron had never inserted Sanchez into the lineup, even late in the overtime to be available for penalty kicks.

But neither Stoitchkov nor Alves got to kick, because Letchkov made his shot.

Now, on the day of Bulgaria’s greatest soccer moment, the mood in Mexico is somber.

The official position taken by the Mexican soccer federation is one of pride in a team that advanced to the round of 16. The unofficial position is one of embarrassment. Mexican newspapers, hindered somewhat by the political situation there, have been less openly critical of what happened against Bulgaria than Mexican radio stations, which have buzzed about it all week.

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The World Cup is no different from any other sports event. Winning and losing are crucial, but how you win or lose frequently plays big in the aftermath too. Had Mexico gone down fighting, its best players taking their best shots, there would be much less gloom in Guadalajara today.

Mejia Baron met with Mexican soccer federation officials Friday, three days after the Mexican Mess in the Meadowlands.

There are reports that, since Mejia Baron is up for a renewal of his contract that would put him in charge for four more years, through World Cup ’98 in France, the Federation is facing a crucial and controversial decision. In favor of a new contract for Baron, at a reported salary of $250,000 per year, is the Mexican federation chairman, the politically well-connected Marcelino Garcia Paniagua. But a groundswell of opposition to that is coming from other Mexican soccer clubs, each of whom has a vote in this. The opposition leader is Mexico’s national champion club, Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara.

As the controversy continues, Bulgaria is set to play Italy for a spot in the final of the most prestigious sports event in the world. It is a moment that so easily could have belonged to Mexico.

But it doesn’t, and that means there is plenty of heat in the kitchen for Miguel Mejia Baron. Harry Truman had a favorite saying for what could happen next.

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Times special correspondent Martha Vargas-Seagle contributed to this story.

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