By Elliott Almond
As one of the most recognizable names in Mexican soccer, former goalkeeper Jorge Campos has experienced the recurring nightmare of his country’s national team.
“We’re always close,” he said one day while visiting the Earthquakes’ training facility to promote Saturday’s match between Mexico and Paraguay at the Oakland Coliseum.
Campos, the starting keeper for Mexico’s 1994 and ’98 World Cup teams, hopes the fortunes change beginning with the sold-out match that starts at 2 p.m.
Although the game is described as a “friendly,” it could lay the team’s foundation as new coach Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre begins shaping his squad for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The match will provide the former Chivas and Toluca coach with a first chance to assess his players.
“He has to see them, how they’re going to play, what style he’s going to play,” said Campos, who is scheduled to appear at the Coliseum with Mexican soccer legends Jared Borgetti, Luis “El Matador” Hernández and Zague before the match.
Every move Chepo makes will come under intense scrutiny by Mexican fans who affectionately call their team el Tri. They have suffered through the indignity of two decades of unfulfilled promise as the national team last advanced past the second round of the World Cup in 1986 when it played host.
The weekend marks the opening of what promises to be an exciting year of international soccer being played in the United States. The Americans play host to powerhouse Argentina on Saturday in East Rutherford, N.J., and then face Venezuela three days later in Tennessee while Mexico plays Venezuela in San Diego.The United States and Mexico are preparing for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, starting in June, whereas Argentina and Paraguay are entered in Copa America, South America’s championship. The Gold Cup has taken on prominence because the winner advances to the 2013 Confederation Cup in Brazil, where it will have a chance to face World Cup-level competition a year before the big event.
The opportunity could help Mexico, which is searching for a new identity.
“Now we have to do something different,” said Campos, a television announcer and former Major League Soccer keeper.
That sentiment runs strong in Mexico after El Tri left South Africa advancing only to the second round. The disillusionment centered on Mexico’s 3-1 defeat to Argentina that included a botched referee’s call that led to an Argentine goal.
Now a majority of the Mexicans are coming into their prime and ready for a breakout.
Mexico has reason for hope with the dynamic strikers Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez of Manchester United and Giovanni dos Santos of Racing Santander on the roster. Chepo also has called striker Carlos Vela of West Bromwich Albion and Celtic midfielder Efrain Juarez for the first time since they were banned for six months over a party at the team hotel.
The coach also wants to take another look at goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who missed Mexico’s last two exhibitions because of poor play.
Campos, 44, can’t wait to see how the group mixes as it has gained experience abroad similar to U.S. players in the English Premier League.
“They have to make the difference,” he said. “They’re playing on the best teams in Europe. That combination can be really good for Mexico — we hope.”