By John Philip Wyllie
Heading into last week’s women’s Olympic soccer qualifying there was no reason to believe that Mexico had any realistic chance of participating in Athens’ Summer Olympic Games. With only two berths available to the many teams representing the North and Central American countries and the powerful United States and Canada competing in their group, Mexico’s chances of qualifying in women’s soccer seemed about as likely as a person winning the lottery on two consecutive days.
Maribel Dominguez and her teammates had other ideas. And together they pulled off what has to be one of the biggest upsets in women’s soccer history. On March 3, Domiguez scored two goals in Mexico’s shocking 2-1 victory over Canada. Canada, considered a shoo-in for the Olympics, was coming off an impressive fourth-place finish in last year’s Women’s World Cup and an unblemished track record against their North American neighbors. Mexico, on the other hand, had failed to even qualify for the last Women’s World Cup and was pummeled in the ’99 Cup, their first and only WWC appearance.
Unlike the team hastily assembled in 1998-‘99 which relied heavily upon American women with dual Mexican citizenship, the members of this Mexican team hail for the most part from Mexico. As the architect of this ever improving team, former Mexican World Cup star Leonardo Cuellar deserves mountains of credit. At a press conference following the game at Costa Rica’s Estadio National a jubilant Cuellar spoke on behalf of the team.
“It has been a long process. It has been a lot of work. Before, in the past, nothing really happened or was organized with the national team. This is a real accomplishment. What we earned today was another four years of support. We live in a culture where you have to win to get the support and today, these beautiful women have earned that support.” Cuellar singled out Dominguez calling her “awesome”. “She deserved it because she has sacrificed a lot,” he said.
Part of that sacrifice involved Dominguez relocating to the United States two years ago so that she could gain the benefit of the stronger competition available in the now defunct WUSA. Dominguez emerged as the first Mexican star in that league and developed a considerable fan base within the Hispanic community.
The team was captained by another former WUSA star, Notre Dame’s Monica Gonzalez, who starred for the Boston Breakers last season. The lanky defender/defensive midfielder played a key role in shutting down Canada’s usually potent attack.
Two days after gaining an Olympic berth Mexico took on the United States for the regional championship. Dominguez was again dominant scoring two goals in the first 15 minutes. American youngster Lindsay Tarpley cut the lead in half just before half-time and then Abby Wambach leveled the score in the 79th minute. Mexico lost its opportunity for what would have been their first ever draw versus the United States when former San Diego Spirit captain Julie Foudy put the Americans on top just six minutes before the final whistle.
While disappointed with the loss, the strong showing demonstrated just how far Mexico has come since the days of double digit losses to its northern neighbor. With the Olympics on the horizon and coming into view a new day is dawning for the women of Mexico.