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World Cup: Despite heroics, Mexico facing elimination.


By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Saturday, June 20, 1998) -- Mexico has become the comeback story of the 1998 World Cup -- and still faces an imposing struggle to stay alive.

It produced one of the finest rallies in memory Saturday, coming from a two-goal deficit and being shorthanded 26 minutes to earn a 2-2 tie against outplayed Belgium in Bordeaux. "We just didn't give up hope," midfielder Ramon Ramirez said. "We showed that we know how to come back."

Despite the strong performance, Mexico must at least tie the highly-favored Netherlands next Thursday, and possibly beat the Dutch, to advance to the second round from Group E -- unless Belgium fails to defeat winless South Korea, which is not regarded as likely.

Forward Cuauhtemoc Blanco added to his own lore for creativity today. Driving from the right wing, he scored the tying goal in the 63rd minute with a brilliant leaping volley from the outside of his left foot inside the near post off a crossing pass by Ramon Ramirez.

It was the most spectacular goal of the tournament, and could rank with the best in history.

Blanco also helped set up the first Mexican score in the comeback. He earlier came to attention in the opener against South Korea when he twice clamped the ball between his feet and successfully jumped between defenders, a technique called the "bounce" by fans, the "frog jump" by critics. Mexico also overcame a deficit in that game, rallying to win, 3-1, playing with a one-man advantage the last 61 minutes.

Marc Wilmots gave Belgium a 2-0 lead with goals late in the first half and early in the second half, after Mexico defender Pavel Pardo was ejected for a rough tackle from behind on Vital Borkelmans.

That advantage lasted until Ramirez, taking a pass from Blanco in the penalty area, was brought down illegally by Gert Verheyen -- bringing on a successful penalty kick in the 56th minute by Alberto Garcia Aspe and the expulsion of the Belgian forward, evening the numbers on the field.

Blanco's spectacular goal seven minutes later deadlocked the match in the 97-degree heat that appeared to wear down Belgium. "We were running on empty for the last quarter hour," coach Georges Leekens said. "It was very hard to play football. Some signalled . . . that they were exhausted, they wanted to come off."

"We went out intending to win," said Mexico coach Manuel Lapuente, who had put three strikers in his starting lineup, though he had to adjust after Pardo was thrown out.

The best of Mexico's early chances came in the 10th minute, when Joel Sanchez hit the post with a header and Luis Hernandez saw his follow-up header cleared off the line. Later in the half, Hernandez sent a long pass to Jaime Ordiales, who crossed a high ball that bounced off the top of the crossbar.

In the closing moments substitute Jesus Arellano nearly sealed an incredible comeback victory when he ran through the exhausted Belgian defense with one minute to play. Goalkeeper Filip De Wilde's strong save on both his shot and Ramirez' attempt off the rebound kept it a draw.

"We would have loved that third goal," Lapuente said. "But it already was a good comeback."

Said Blanco: "We managed a great draw . . . thanks to our enthusiasm, our heart, and the help of God. We never thought we would lose. The idea never even entered our head."

Mexico was criticized for lackluster pre-World Cup play in which it was beaten by several teams following the late-fall firing of coach Bora Milutinovic after he had led the team to first place in the CONCACAF region World Cup qualifying.

Lapuente, who himself was axed as Mexico's coach several years ago, caused further controversy by dropping veteran forward Carlos Hermosillo, all-time Mexican first division scoring leader and a mainstay on the national team for several years.

In other results:

* The Netherlands routed South Korea, 5-0, which put it atop Group E with four points and a plus-five goal differential, while Mexico is second, also with four points but a plus two-differential. Belgium is third with two points and a zero-differential. The loss by South Korea brought Asia's record in the first round to 0-7, with a goal differential of 1-15 for South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

* Tireless striker Davor Suker scored with 14 minutes left to give Croatia a 1-0 win against Japan to virtually ensure his team's advancement to the second round from Group H. His shot from the edge of the penalty box zone was fumbled by goalkeeper Yoshi Nawaguchi. "We knew we could win if we stayed patient but Japan were really obstinate and gave as good as they got," Croatia coach Miroslav Blazevic said.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at jlangdon@gns.gannett.com.

Group H

Croatia 1, Japan 0
in Nantes

Croatia - Drazen Ladic, Zvonimir Soldo, Dario Simic, Slaven Bilic, Igor Stimac (Goran Vlaovic 46), Robert Jarni, Robert Prosinecki (Silvio Maric 66), Aljosa Asanovic, Krunoslav Jurcic, Mario Stanic (Tudor 87), Davor Suker.
Japan - Yoshi Kawaguchi, Masami Ihara, Akira Narahashi (Hiroaki Morishima 78), Yutaka Akita, Eisuke Nakanishi, Naoki Soma, Hiroshi Nanami (Wagner Lopes, 83), Motohiro Yamaguchi, Hidetoshi Nakata, Masashi Nakayama (Masayuki Okano 61), Shoji Jo.
Goal: Croatia - Davor Suker 77.
Shots at goal:Croatia 17, Japan 13.
Shots on goal: Croatia 4, Japan 5.
Yellow cautionary cards: Croatia - Robert Prosinecki 27, Mario Stanic 83. Japan - Hiroshi Nanami 42, Eisuke Nakanishi 70, Yutaka Akita 89.
Referee:Ramesh Ramdhan (Trinidad &Tobago).
Attendance: 39,500 (estimated).


Group E

Mexico 2, Belgium 2
in Bordeaux

Mexico - Jorge Campos, Claudio Suarez Sanchez, Duilio Davino, Pavel Pardo, Ramon Ramirez, Alberto Garcia Aspe (Raul Lara 68), Jaime Ordiales (German Villa 58), Joel Sanchez, Francisco Palencia (Jesus Arellano 46), Luis Hernandez, Cuauhtemoc Blanco.
Belgium - Filip De Wilde, Eric Deflandre, Lorenzo Staelens, Gordan Vidovic, Vital Borkelmans, Franky Van der Elst (Glen De Boeck 67), Enzo Scifo, Marc Wilmots, Danny Boffin (Gert Verheyen 18), Luis Oliveira, Luc Nilis (Emile Mpenza 77).
Goals: Belgium - Marc Wilmots 43, 48; Mexico - Alberto Garcia Aspe 56 (penalty kick), Cuauhtemoc Blanco 63.
Shots at goal: Belgium 14, Mexico 10.
Shots on goal: Belgium 5, Mexico 7.
Yellow cautionary cards: Mexico - Ramon Ramirez 39; Belgium - Gordan Vidovic 69.
Red expulsion cards: Mexico - Pavel Pardo 29. Belgium - Gert Verheyen 55.
Referee: Hugh Dallas (Scotland).
Attendance: 36,500 (estimated).

The Netherlands 5, South Korea 0
in Marseilles

Netherlands - Edwin Van der Sar, Jaap Stam, Arthur Numan (Winston Bogarde 80), Frank de Boer, Wim Jonk, Aron Winter, Ronald de Boer (Boudewijn Zenden 84), Edgar Davids, Phillip Cocu, Marc Overmars, Dennis Bergkamp (Pierre Van Hooijdonk 78).
South Korea - Kim Byung Ji, Choi Young Il, Lee Min Sung, Hong Myung Bo, Choi Sung Yong (Kim Tae Young 53), Yoo Sang Chul, Kim Do Keun, Lee Sang Yoon, Kim Do Hoon (Ko Jong Soo 70), Choi Yong Soo, Seo Jung Won (Lee Dong Gook 77).
Goals: Netherlands - Phillip Cocu 37, Marc Overmars 41, Dennis Bergkamp 71, Pierre Van Hooijdonk 79, Ronald de Boer 83.
Shots at goal: Netherlands 27, South Korea 12.
Shots on goal: Netherlands 17, South Korea 4.
Yellow cautionary cards: South Korea - Choi Yong Soo 27, Ko Jong Soo 90.
Referee: Ryszard Wojcik (Poland).
Attendance: 60,000 (estimated).