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  • Monday, August 14, 2000

    Mexico City causes high anxiety for visitors

    By NEIL DAVIDSON -- The Canadian Press

     At Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, the visitors exit their dressing room up a staircase where they emerge above ground into a cauldron of sound, smog and Mexican flags.

     "It's like back to Roman times, they bring you into the arena," former Canadian international Frank Yallop said Monday from Herndon, Va.

     "If you haven't been there (before), the first time you walk out is intimidating."

     Just climbing the stairs brings home another challenge of playing Azteca. The altitude.

     At 2,240 metres above sea level, it's like playing in another world.

     Mexico's World Cup qualifying record at Azteca is 40-0-3. The last time the Mexicans lost at home was in June 1981, a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Spanish club powerhouse Real Madrid who were European Cup runners-up that year.

     A young Canadian side will experience Azteca on Tuesday afternoon (3 p.m. EDT, CTV Sportsnet) in a World Cup qualifying game that the host Mexicans have scheduled for 2 p.m. local time to ensure Canada bears the brunt of the conditions.

     The Mexicans do all they can to make life hellish for the visitors. If the ball goes out of play, ball boys are instructed to return it as quickly as possible to ensure no one has time for a breather.

     At 0-1-1, Canada needs a win to preserve its chances of advancing to the final round of World Cup qualifying. But visiting teams don't win in Azteca even against a Mexican side (1-1-0) as dodgy and unpredictable as this one.

     For the Confederations Cup final last year, Azteca was filled with 115,000 for the game against Brazil, the top-ranked team in the world. Mexico won 4-3. The timing of Tuesday's game, not to mention the opposition, should make for a smaller crowd, however.

     The stadium is now officially known as Estadio Guillermo Canedo, after a late Mexican soccer official who was instrumental in bringing the 1970 and 1986 World Cups to Mexico.

     Mexico has outscored its opposition 161-21 in World Cup qualifying play at Azteca. But Canadians can take solace that they were the first to halt the Mexican win streak at Azteca, with a 1-1 tie on Nov. 16, 1980. Plus the last two World Cup qualifying games there ended in ties: 0-0 against the U.S. and 3-3 against Costa Rica, both in November 1997.

     The most recent ties resulted in the firing of Bora Milutinovic as head coach.

     Preparations for Tuesday's game started before Canada flew in Sunday.

     Canadian players travelling from all points after weekend club games were instructed to start drinking water days before Tuesday's game to prepare their bodies.

     For every leg of the trip to North America, players were told to take a 1.8-litre bottle of water with them and drink four to five glasses of water on top of that.

     In essence, the high altitude prevents the normal amount of oxygen from getting to the body. Exercising at sea level, the body adjusts to produce the number of red blood cells needed to carry oxygen to the muscles. At altitude, there is less oxygen to absorb and the body, unless acclimatised to the conditions, cannot produce the extra red blood cells needed to carry the oxygen.

     "It's funny, you warm up and think 'yeah, I'm not too bad,"' said Yallop, now an assistant coach with DC United in Major League Soccer. "You go in (the dressing room) and you come back out and you think 'I just played a match."'

     "It's a weird feeling. Your mind sees things but your legs can't carry you there because the oxygen doesn't get to your muscles quick enough to move.

     "Obviously in the second half, you're sucking wind."

     "The demands are massive in order to supply the oxygen to the muscles groups," added Canadian physiotherapist Alex McKechnie.

     "The only way we can reproduce that is to train at an altitude level and that trains between four and six weeks to do that."

     If teams can't do that, the next best strategy is to get there no sooner than two to three days before competition.

     Still, Canadian physiotherapists prepare for the worst.

     "Fatigue hits rapidly, 20-30 minutes maximum and you basically burn out," said McKechnie.

     Players will complain of screaming headaches, dehydration and overheating.

     Not to mention the fact that the ball behaves differently that high, because it is lighter.

     The Mexican players are used to the conditions since nearly all of them play professionaly in Mexico.

     Then there's the smog of Mexico City.

     "We have players at halftime coughing up black phlegm in the dressing rooms," McKechnie said. "We have had players who have no recollection of the last 20 to 30 minutes of the game."

     At halftime, team officials will have iced towels on hand to cool players down although the forecast for Tuesday seems less extreme with a forecast of thunderstorms and a high of 21 C.

     The Canadians are staying in an well-equipped hotel in Mexico City, which makes life easier for support staff.

     "The unwritten rule is you don't eat anything that isn't supplied to you via the set meal plan," said Canadian physiotherapist Greg Bay. "Obviously nothing from anything outside the hotel."

     One reason is to avoid contamination. The other is to stick to a meal plan designed to prepare players for the game.

     Rest is also crucial. Players like Paul Stalteri and Kevin McKenna, who endured 24 hours of travel just getting to Mexico after club games in Germany on Saturday, won't get much rest Tuesday with an early kickoff.

     Canada is 1-5-6 lifetime in World Cup qualifying games against Mexico, with the lone win coming in 1976 in Vancouver.

     Canada's overall record in Mexico City, including a friendly game, is 0-7-1.

     The Canadians have been outscored 27-2 there with Canada's last three games at Azteca losses of 4-0, 8-0 and 4-0.

     Despite the drawbacks, Yallop says playing in Mexico City is the experience of a lifetime.

     "It's what you want to play in front of as a player. It's everything you've dreamed of, and more really."

     ------

     Notes: Trinidad and Tobago (2-0-0) hosts Panama (0-1-1) on Wednesday in the other game in Canada's qualifying group. The good news for Panama is an examination of the referee's report for the 0-0 draw with Canada showed that Jorgy Dely Valdes was mistakenly given a caution instead of twin brother Julio Cesar Valdes. That means both twin strikers will be available Wednesday ... Richard Hastings, Paul Peschisolido, Paul Stalteri and Davide Xausa all carry yellow cards into Tuesday's game. Another caution and they will have to sit out a game ... Canada, 12-7-4 under head coach Holger Osieck, has lost only once in its last 17 games ... Canada beat Mexico 2-1 in San Diego at the Gold Cup in February ... Mexico is ranked 14th in the world to No. 56 for Canada.



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