Like an Acapulco cliff diver leaping into the unknown, Mexico’s soccer federation Tuesday took the plunge and named Sven-Goran Eriksson as its national coach.
This is unchartered territory for Mexico -- selecting a high-profile European coach who speaks little Spanish, to take over a team that is about two weeks from its first qualifying game for the South Africa 2010 World Cup.
The 60-year-old Swede led England to the quarterfinals of the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and the quarterfinals of the 2004 European Championship and this season coached Manchester City to ninth place in the English Premier League. He was introduced at a packed news conference in Mexico City.
“I accepted because it’s a big challenge,” said Eriksson, speaking in a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish to the media. “Our target is the World Cup and to try to do better than last time.”
In 2006 Mexico was under the helm of Argentina’s Ricardo Lavolpe and was knocked out in the second round by Argentina, its opponent tonight in an 8 o’clock friendly at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.
Lavolpe was replaced after the World Cup by Hugo Sanchez, a former Mexican national team idol, but Sanchez lasted only until this March, when his failure to qualify Mexico for the Beijing Olympics cost him his job.
Now, Eriksson has the helm, or at least he will have in a few weeks.
For the moment, Jesus “Chucho” Ramirez, who in 2005 won the FIFA Under-17 World Cup with Mexico, will hold onto the coaching reins. He will be in charge tonight, against Peru in another friendly in Chicago on Sunday, and for Mexico’s two-game World Cup qualifying series against Belize on June 15 in Houston and June 21 in Monterrey, Mexico.
After that, Eriksson takes over, although it is believed that he will retain Ramirez as his top assistant.
The need for a Mexican coach somewhere in the national team mix has been hammered home by several of the team’s veteran players. Jared Borgetti, Mexico’s all-time leading goal scorer, said last week that the time was not right for a foreign coach to take charge of El Tri.
“It has to be someone who knows Mexican football, who knows Mexican players, the lives of Mexican players and who knows the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, which are very different from Europe,” Borgetti said.
In considering Eriksson, along with another high-profile candidate who was approached by Mexico -- Portugal’s Brazilian mentor Luiz Felipe Scolari -- Borgetti claimed the federation was making a mistake. “The club owners want a renowned coach, who attracts worldwide attention, but that way we are not going to win anything because we are putting footballing matters to one side,” he said.
Another national team veteran, defender Carlos Salcido, earlier said he would “prefer someone who knows the Mexican league.”
Borgetti and Salcido are on Mexico’s roster for tonight’s game, with Ramirez having selected a strong squad for a match that is expected to draw 60,000 or more.
Argentina too has most of its first team available, the most notable exceptions being Carlos Tevez and Juan Roman Riquelme. Still, Coach Alfio Basile has Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Javier Mascherano at his disposal.
Argentina is using tonight’s game and Sunday’s match against the U.S. in New Jersey to prepare for this month’s World Cup qualifiers against Ecuador and Brazil.