no easy walk to cup for mexico

MEXICO CITY - Mexico are headed for their fifth consecutive World Cup in South Africa 2010 with the goal of making it past the second round.

MEXICO CITY - Mexico are headed for their fifth consecutive World Cup in South Africa 2010 with the goal of making it past the second round.

The Mexicans will play against South Africa, inaugural winners Uruguay and France in the tournament that stars on June 1.

Of course, that is easier said than done: this is set to be Mexico's 14th World Cup participation, and only twice have they reached the quarterfinals - in both cases on home turf, in 1970 and 1986.

Rational, long-term thinking, however, appears to indicate that the first World Cup ever played on African soil should be positive for Mexico, whatever their results, as a good chance for a group of young, talented players to gain experience for 2014.

A new generation of self-confident, go-getting Mexican footballers is already thriving in European leagues, and coach Javier Aguirre hopes to make the most of their skills and ambitions.

However, Mexico's path to South Africa 2010 has not been easy, and that may be reason to tone down expectations.

They started out with national football legend Hugo Sanchez as coach, but the former Real Madrid striker lost steam within little over a year and was replaced by Swede Sven-Goran Eriksson. Eriksson did not fare much better, and was also out the door within 13 months.

In April, Mexican football officials turned to Aguirre, who had already taken the helm of the Mexican team under similar last-minute conditions ahead of the 2002 World Cup and led them to the second round in Japan and South Korea.

In the final round of qualifiers in the North and Central American and Caribbean region this year, Mexico lost three out of the first four matches, but then managed to change course with five consecutive wins that gave them a place in South Africa.

Barcelona's versatile player Rafael Marquez is Mexico's leader on the pitch. In defence, he is joined by PSV Eindhoven's Carlos Salcido and Stuttgart's Ricardo Osorio.

Beyond captain Marquez, experience is set to come from charismatic striker Cuauhtemoc Blanco and midfielder Gerardo Torrado. The three have already played two World Cups.

They will be joined by a hungry group of young players, like strikers Giovani dos Santos of Tottenham and Carlos Vela of Arsenal, and Deportivo La Coruña midfielder Andres Guardado.

THE COACH: Javier Aguirre, 50, had a long career as a midfielder, mostly in Mexican teams, and played for Mexico in the 1986 World Cup.

Since 1995 he has been active as a coach, with a World Cup participation in 2002 and a three-year stint at Atletico Madrid as the top items in his resume. Aguirre is regarded as a great motivator, based on an open, friendly relationship with players and an insistence on hard work to get the most out of them.

THE STAR: Rafael Marquez, 30, provides a mix of reliability on the pitch and experience at the top level of European football to claim the role of Mexico's captain and leader. A versatile centre-back who can play in midfield, Marquez made his professional debut with Mexican side Atlas at 17, and within three years he had moved to Monaco.

In 2003 he joined Barcelona, and became a pillar of the Catalan side despite several injuries. Marquez first played for Mexico at 18, and his significance within the team is clear from the fact that Aguirre made him team captain in the 2002 World Cup although he was just 23. - Sapa-DPA