There are few occasions in football that stir passions as intensely as a rivalry between neighbours. Much has been written about such duels, in which heroes and villains are made. Good or bad, these are the games that live long in fans’ memories.
Needless to say, there are not many men who can claim to be legends on both sides of a fierce rivalry. And any that can are very special characters indeed.
That is why it is worth paying close attention when Bora Milutinovic speaks on the subject of Mexico versus USA. The Serbian coach, who led El Tri to their best-ever finish at a FIFA World Cup™ on home soil in 1986, and took the Stars and Stripes into the second round at USA 1994, evidently knows what he is talking about.
“The rivalry only really began in 1991, when I was in charge of USA,” recalled the 71-year-old. “Mexico never used to take their neighbours to the north very seriously. But that year we played in the first Gold Cup and caused a surprise by beating them 2-0 in the semi-finals. Everything changed after that.”
The two countries will meet again on Saturday 10 October in Pasadena, California, in a crucial encounter in which they will fight for a place at the FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017. With 33 victories and 18 defeats from previous meetings, history is undoubtedly on Mexico’s side going into the clash, but things started to change once Bora was in the USA dugout.
“That win was the first time the USA had beaten Mexico in 28 years, and it wasn’t the last either,” said Bora, incidentally the only coach to have taken five different teams to five World Cups. “In fact, we played five times while I was in charge, and we won two, drew two and only lost one.”
From then on results have been evenly balanced, and both nations claim to be top dogs in the North, Central America and Caribbean zone - with some justification, according to Bora: “Everyone knows the mentality in the USA: they always want to be the best and they work towards that. But players tend to be more talented in Mexico, and that balances things out."
Despite that parity, and the fact that USA have not lost to their arch-rivals in six games under Jurgen Klinsmann, Milutinovic views Mexico as firm favourites ahead of their impending fixture. “The reason is clear to me,” said Milutinovic, who also had spells on the touchline with Nigeria, China PR and Costa Rica. “At the moment Mexico have greater quality in their squad. USA aren’t the same team they were a few years ago. What wins matches is the quality of your players. History doesn’t play and neither do the jerseys. If a team has greater quality and is aware of that fact, then they have to be favourites.” The legendary coach also highlighted another factor that could prove crucial: “Interest in football has increased a lot since I was USA coach, and the national team is much more popular than it was. However, it’s a bit different in games against Mexico, who usually have more supporters when the two meet, especially when they play in California. You only need to look back at the last time they played there in the final of the 2011 Gold Cup: Mexico had tremendous support from the stands and won 4-2.”
Nevertheless, Bora still thinks USA could hold the upper hand in one particular aspect: “Fitness could make a difference, with the players they have from the Bundesliga. On top of that Klinsmann is a very able coach and knows his players well. But I repeat that a coach can only take a team as far as the players’ quality allows, no further.”
If Milutinovic’s viewpoint is clear, so is where his heart lies: “I know Mexico’s coaching staff very well. I coached Ricardo Ferreti and I’ve worked with his assistant Miguel Mejia Baron and athletics trainer Ariel Gonzalez. I’m going to watch the match hoping they do well, but just to be clear: when I say Mexico are better it’s not only because of sentimentality but also rationality. There are a lot of factors that lead me to believe that.”