COLUMBUS, Ohio – There were always going to be fireworks, especially for Mexico, whose players failed to control their frustration that is becoming all too familiar.
Within seconds after the United States' 2-0 victory against its fiercest rival on Wednesday night, tempers boiled over in the Crew Stadium tunnel as members of both teams headed back to their locker rooms. An incident involving U.S. defender Frankie Hejduk and Mexico assistant coach Jesus Ramirez sparked a clash that required police and security to act quickly in order to avoid further trouble.
"There was a lot of emotion before, during and after the game," Hejduk said. "There were some words said, they thought I said something that I didn't say – and I received a little love tap from someone. It got me on the top of the head but I'm fine."
It's easy to see why Mexico was bitter and annoyed. El Tri suffered the sort of brutal beating to which a two-goal score-line does not do justice. The team that still regards itself as the most fluid and accomplished in CONCACAF was outgunned and outplayed for 90 minutes and knows it will return home to a furious greeting from a proud soccer nation that is losing patience.
The inability of the Mexican team to control its emotions, and the way in which the Americans kept their discipline, is a key reason why this game ended like it did. Mexico was fortunate not to concede more than the two Michael Bradley goals that proved to be the victory margin.
The difference in leadership was a vital factor. Mexico ended the contest with 10 men after captain Rafael Marquez was sent off for a horrendous challenge on U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard. Such a mindless action should not be excusable for any player, but of all people Marquez, the Barcelona superstar and spine of his team.
That incident, in the 65th minute, set the difference in discipline between the sides. While Marquez was correctly banished from the field by Guatemalan referee Carlos Batres, his rival captain, Carlos Bocanegra, was busy calming down his players to ensure they did not get drawn into a physical altercation themselves.
"I am here to ask for public forgiveness," said Marquez in a postmatch news conference. "I've already asked the same from my teammates, the coaching staff and the federation, and now I want to apologize publicly to my fans, my country and the media for my conduct. I made an error and threw away all the hard work we had put in all week."
Mexico is sorry too after enduring an evening of nightmarish proportions. The crisis of confidence affecting the team heading into the hexagonal round was bad enough. Now the prospect of missing the World Cup seems painfully real.
The team lacks any cohesion. Mexico coach Sven-Goran Eriksson has been unable to instill confidence and may soon be headed through the exit door.
The same can't be said of the U.S., which looks poised to march a merry path through CONCACAF and comfortably book an early ticket to South Africa.
Howard spoke of the importance in having a figure like Bocanegra, by no means a star at club level, keeping the ship steady from the top.
"When Bob [Bradley] took over the team, he instilled a lot of belief and responsibility in Carlos and Carlos has stepped up to the plate and embraced it," Howard said. "He has always got a soft word to say to the guys, pull them to one side. He can be demanding at times as a leader but we trust him, he leads us into battle all the time and we are behind him."
Bocanegra is not the sort of character who gets a lot of attention on the field, yet he is as good for this team as it is for him. Wearing the national team's colors always seems to bring out the best in him, and he has the faith of his teammates and Bradley.
"We knew it was going to be difficult," Bocanegra said. "Everybody did a good job. Bob stressed that before the game, we had to keep our heads and don't give in to their gamesmanship.
"We have a big group and there are other leaders, guys who have been here for awhile. It is a big group effort and it is tremendous to be a part of it."