MEXICO CITY (AP) — To Mexicans, it's just unthinkable: Their soccer-crazed country stands a chance of not qualifying for the World Cup.
Worse yet, it was a 2-0 loss Tuesday night to their bitter northern rival — the U.S. — that has left Mexico out of position for a spot in next year's 32-nation tournament. The team known as the Tri has only two games left to make up ground.
It's a front-page disaster. One newspaper calls it the "Tritanic." A sample of other headlines: "Fiasco," ''Crisis," ''Dreadful."
"People see this as the country failing them, especially when it means it may not qualify for the World Cup," said Miguel Angel Lara, an academic who studies sports and society at the Ibero-American University. "Seeing the national team losing like that, two times in a row, really generates hopelessness and disappointment."
Lara says it hurts Mexicans even more because the losing streak comes only a year after Mexico won the gold medal after beating Brazil 2-1 in the London Olympics, an under-23 tournament. They lost their grip with one disappointing draw after the next at the supposedly imposing Azteca Stadium, without scoring goals.
"Our frustration is worse. Take away food from a poor man who you've been feeding for eight days. Just see what happens," he said.
Mexico has not missed a World Cup since 1990. But even then it wasn't because the team lost in their qualifying group, but because FIFA punished it for lying about players' ages.
Altogether, Mexico has scored only four goals in the North and Central American and Caribbean finals this year, dropping into fifth place in the group of six countries. The most likely, and even upbeat, scenario is that the team heads to a playoff against New Zealand to qualify for the world tournament.
Fears are also escalating that if Mexico doesn't go to Brazil for the World Cup, companies that have invested tens of millions for marketing and broadcast rights won't reap the expected revenue.
Rogelio Roa, commercial director of the sports marketing firm DreaMatch Solutions, says his company estimates that consumer brands and TV stations won't make about $600 million in selling products and services if Mexico stays home.
"It is worrying all of us involved in the industry," he said. "I am confident that Mexico can overcome this."
The rivalry between Mexico and the United States dates back decades, but arguably the most heartbreaking loss to the U.S. came in 2002 when the American team beat Mexico 2-0, throwing it out of World Cup in South Korea and Japan. Then, last year, the U.S. team made history at Azteca with a 1-0 victory for the first time in 75 years at that stadium.
"It hurts not to go to the World Cup, but also losing to the U.S. I don't know if it's because it's our neighbor or because now we know we are the worst ones," said Ruben Galindo, a 40-year-old employee at Mexico City's motor vehicles department.
Even before the loss to the U.S., Jose Manuel "Chepo" De la Torre had been fired as coach in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday, right after Mexico's hair-pulling home loss to Honduras, in which the Tri fell 2-1 after holding a one-goal lead.
The woes of the national team, venerated almost as much as Mexico's patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, are adding to the anxiety sparked by teacher protests that have blocked major roads and created more traffic in the nation's capital.
Soccer is such a big deal that teachers protesting against a newly adopted education reform complain that Mexicans demand more from the national team's soccer coach than of their president.
"I say: 'We have to be optimistic. It can win,'" said Mariana Villalobos, a 28-year-old who sells used clothing on the street. "But then you see how the other team scores once, then twice, and we lose our spirit."
-- Adriana Gomez Licon
Test for Klinsmann will be at the World Cup
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Jurgen Klinsmann sat on a podium and smiled after guiding the United States into its seventh straight World Cup.
Not to minimize the accomplishment, but the former German star player and coach will be judged not on reaching soccer's elite tournament, but on how well the United States performs in Brazil next year.
"The team's success, especially in official competitions and difficult games in Europe has been very good," U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said Wednesday, "but I think everyone understands that the World Cup is a different level."
Beating Mexico by the now traditional "dos a cero" score at Columbus Crew Stadium on Tuesday night, the Americans have now won four straight home qualifiers against El Tri by 2-0.
Klinsmann helped Germany win the 1990 World Cup and the 1996 European Championship, then retired as a player two years later and moved to California with his American wife. He commuted from Orange County to Germany for a two-year stint as coach, leading his nation to the semifinals of the World Cup it hosted in 2006, then quit.
Gulati recruited him later that year to succeed Bruce Arena but couldn't reach an agreement on his authority. But after the U.S. played listlessly during the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup, Gulati ended Klinsmann's five-year stretch as coach-in-waiting and hired him at a $2.5 million annual salary to replace Bob Bradley.
Results have been impressive: 25 wins, nine losses and six ties, including the Americans' first victory over four-time world champion Italy, their triumph at Mexico City's Azteca Stadium and their first Gold Cup title since 2007. He's already fifth on the U.S. career wins list, trailing only Arena (71), Bradley (43), Bora Milutinovic (30) and Steve Sampson (26).
"The best thing he's done is created lots of competition, and so every time you step on the field you have to perform or you're not going to step on the field the next time," star attacker Landon Donovan said. "It's not in a pressure way, but it's in an accountability way."
In his first weeks, he stripped players' names off jersey backs and went to the old soccer method of changing numbers from game to game and assigning the starters Nos. 1-11 based on position. He wanted to encourage competition.
"It's a pretty good system. It's the way it works in Europe, like nothing is yours forever," goalkeeper Tim Howard said then. "I don't think some of the younger guys quite get it."
Klinsmann's methods seem more suited to the U.S. at times than to Germany, which has an entrenched soccer tradition and resistance to change. He was hired to coach Bayern Munich, one of his old clubs, in July 2008 but was fired the following April.
Bayern President Uli Hoeness complained Klinsmann made the club purchase computers to develop PowerPoint presentations used to inform players of game strategy and compared him unfavorably with Jupp Heynckes, who led the team to this year's Champions League title.
"With Heynckes, we win games for 12.50 (euros), while we spent a lot of money under Klinsmann and had little success," Hoeness told the Donaukurier newspaper two years ago.
Klinsmann hired Phoenix-based Athletes Performance, a company he worked with during his time with Germany and Bayern. The company develops training and nutritional plans for each player.
And players' time on the practice field lengthened considerably.
"Maybe two years ago they wondered, 'What is this all about? All this extra work, all this extra here, extra there.' Now it's just normal," he said. "The players come in, they know there are double sessions waiting for them. The players know what we expect tactically. The players know that there's another guy behind them in every position, that if he doesn't give everything he has, the next one steps in and steals him his spot."
Players buy in, knowing the 49-year-old was a winner during 17 years with top-level clubs. After the U.S. opened the final round of qualifying with a loss at Honduras, Sporting News ran a story headlined "Klinsmann's methods, leadership, acumen in question." Eleven players and 11 others with ties to players or the national team — all unidentified — portrayed a team hampered by sniping and critical of Klinsmann's tactics.
Then the U.S. followed with a 4-0-1 streak in qualifying and a team-record 12-game winning streak this summer.
"He's a super positive guy. He never lets it show when the chips are down," Howard said. "And I think we've answered the bell a bunch of times: Guatemala in Kansas City, the snow game (against Costa Rica in Colorado), when there was all this internal strife and we hated each other."
America spent 40 years in soccer's wilderness, failing to reach the World Cup between 1950 and 1990. Now the nation is much more attuned to the world game, boosted by changes in technology that allow most top European matches to be available live on U.S. television and even mobile telephones.
There would be an outcry if the U.S. failed to qualify for a World Cup.
"I think now it's expected of us," Howard said, "but it's never a guarantee."
-- Ronad Blum
Mexico-U.S. nets record rating for qualifier
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The United States' 2-0 victory over Mexico on Tuesday night had matching record ratings to the 0-0 draw the teams played in Mexico City in March.
The game on ESPN drew a 1.4 rating, according to Nielsen. An average audience of 2.243 million viewers and 1.641 million television households tuned in. Ratings represent the percentage of all homes with televisions tuned to a program. Overnight ratings measure the country's largest markets.
Columbus was the top market for the match telecast with a 5.1 rating. Rounding out the top 10 markets were Miami-Fort Lauderdale (3.3), Buffalo, N.Y., (3.2), Dayton, Ohio (2.8), Washington, D.C. (2.8), San Diego (2.7), New York (2.7), Seattle-Tacoma (2.6), San Antonio (2.5) and West Palm Beach, Fla. (2.5).
Earnshaw gives Toronto FC to 1-1 draw with Fire
TORONTO (AP) — Robert Earnshaw scored midway through the first half to give Toronto FC to a 1-1 draw with the Chicago Fire in Major League Soccer on Wednesday.
Dilly Duka opened the scoring for the Fire in the 20th minute with a looping ball that skipped over teammate Mike Magee's foot and past Toronto 'keeper Joe Bendik.
Earnshaw equalized three minutes later as Toronto extended its winless streak to six matches. Earnshaw left the game shortly after with a possible injury.
Bendik also had to make a game-saving stop from close range in the 80th minute on a shot by former Toronto player Quincy Amarikwa.
English FA wants end to 'Yid' chants at matches
LONDON (AP) — Used affectionately by supporters of Premier League club Tottenham but hurled back by rivals with venom, football chants featuring "Yid" have long been a source of ambiguity in England.
Now football leaders, striving to eradicate anti-Semitism at matches, have taken on the thorny issue.
Whatever the context, using the derogatory term for Jews in chants is not acceptable, and using it risks criminal prosecution, the English Football Association has ruled.
"The FA would encourage fans to avoid using it in any situation," the organization said in new guidelines published online.
In response, Tottenham announced Wednesday it is launching a wide-scale consultation on how to deal with the issue.
Fans of Tottenham, which has traditionally drawn a large fan base from the Jewish communities in London, have been calling themselves the "Yid Army" for decades.
But the "call to arms" — as Tottenham sees it — has muddied complaints when its fans face abuse.
"We are acutely aware of the sensitivity of this issue," Tottenham said in a statement to The Associated Press. "Our fans historically adopted the chant as a defense mechanism in order to own the term and thereby deflect anti-Semitic abuse. They do not use the term with any deliberate intent to cause offence."
English football's governing body recognized in its announcement that Tottenham fans have adopted variants of "Yid" as a "badge of honor" without intending to cause offense.
"Nevertheless, its use is still liable to cause offence to others, whether Jewish or not," the FA said. "Also, by using the term in this manner, fans may be clouding the issue by making it harder to differentiate its use by these fans and by those who use the term in an intentionally offensive manner."
While acknowledging that "Yid" is derived from the Yiddish word for a Jewish person, the FA said in England the word has always been "derogatory and offensive" and its use even divides opinion in the religious community.
Offenders are liable to be prosecuted and handed a lengthy ban from attending matches.
The FA declined to say why it issued the guidelines, but they come after Tottenham fans faced abuse last season both at home and abroad.
During a Premier League match, some West Ham fans were heard chanting about Adolf Hitler and hissing, a gesture widely seen as imitating the sound of the gas chambers used during the Holocaust. The FA took no action against Tottenham's London rival.
At a Europa League match in Rome, Lazio fans hurled anti-Semitic chants at the visiting Tottenham fan base, leading to the Italian club being sanctioned by UEFA.
"Our fans have themselves engaged in this debate (about the 'Yid' chants) following the events of last season," the Tottenham statement said. "We recognize that this is a complex debate and ... we are already in the process of engaging with our fans and shall be consulting more widely in due course."
The Tottenham Hotspur Supporters' Trust said it will seek legal advice about the new FA directive to assess whether fans could be thrown out of grounds.
The group maintains that "no Spurs fan uses the term in a malicious way."
-- Rob Harris
Afghanistan wins first international soccer title
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Bullets whizzed through the air in the Afghan capital Wednesday night, this time in celebration rather than anger: Afghanistan had just won its first international trophy in soccer.
The Afghans beat India 2-0 in the South Asian Football Federation Championship, a tough match whose result brought a rare moment of unity to this ethnically fractious, war-weary nation, which the U.S. invaded in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks 12 years ago.
In Kabul, young and old cheered, clapped and laughed as their team seized the win in Kathmandu, Nepal. Car horns blared, and some Afghans waved national flags on the streets. The gunfire, meanwhile, continued for about an hour after the win, raising safety concerns.
"I am extremely happy, and I am very proud," said Waheedullah, who like many Afghans goes by one name. "How I can explain my feelings? My friends and I were just praying, praying to be champions. It's one of the happiest days of my life."
The Afghans, who were a founding member of the Asian Football Confederation in 1954, have a long soccer history but only recently re-emerged on the world scene after decades of war and insurgency.
When the Taliban ruled the country from 1996-2001, they severely restricted sports, and soccer stadiums were used to stage executions of those who ran afoul of the Islamist movement's harsh laws. After the U.S. ousted the Taliban in 2001, sports here were reborn.
Although Afghanistan has never played at the World Cup, or even at the Asian Cup, the country has been getting better in recent years, rising up the FIFA rankings to No. 139.
On Wednesday, Mustafa Azadzoi put Afghanistan ahead early in the first half at Dashrath Stadium, and Sanjar Ahmadi doubled the lead in the second. When it was over, the players danced around the field with Afghan flags draped on their shoulders.
"I'm proud of my whole country. I congratulate my dear countrymen," said Afghanistan goalkeeper Mansur Faqiryar, who made some key saves.
The win avenged a loss in the SAFF Championship final two years ago, when India beat the Afghans 4-0.
Afghans gathered in homes, restaurants, offices and even small markets to watch the game. President Hamid Karzai's office tweeted a photo of him watching the players celebrate their win.
"The youth of Afghanistan showed that our nation, our people have the ability to make progress and succeed," said a seemingly choked-up Karzai in a multilingual message posted on YouTube.
Even the Afghan intelligence service issued a statement congratulating the soccer champions. It also later issued a statement asking celebrants to stop firing guns.
Afghans began playing soccer about 90 years ago, and the country's national federation was founded in 1922. Afghanistan joined FIFA in 1948.
From the 1950s through the '70s, soccer gained a strong following in the country, but it nearly disappeared during the 10-year Soviet occupation from 1979-89 and the civil war that followed from 1992-96.
Since the Taliban were toppled in 2001, Afghans have struggled to rebuild their country. Moments of national unity are especially uplifting as they grapple with an uncertain future because of the ongoing withdrawal of U.S.-led troops and a spreading Taliban insurgency.
-- Nahal Toosi
Beers and pizza for first San Marino goal in five years
Alessandro Della Valle was back in his office at a ceramics retailer on Wednesday, his international football career a little less unsung.
The night before, he'd scored the first goal in five long years for tiny San Marino, a punch bag of European football.
The 2014 World Cup qualifier against Poland ended as they almost always do for the speck of a republic — with a loss. Only, for once, the score wasn't something massive to nil.
With his first-half header from a free kick, Della Valle made the final score a somewhat less embarrassing 5-1, earning the amateur player the admiration of co-workers when he rolled back into the office.
"They welcomed me like a national hero. It was strange," he said in a phone interview.
Landlocked San Marino sits atop a hill in central Italy near Rimini and the Adriatic coast. It has a population of only 32,000, with just 1,586 of them registered as footballers, according to governing body FIFA.
Along with the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan and the Turks and Caicos Islands east of Cuba, San Marino sits at the very bottom of FIFA's world rankings.
Mirko Palazzi is the only professional player on the otherwise completely amateur team that lost to Poland, said Alan Gasperoni, who volunteers his spare time to act as the team's press officer.
San Marino has never won a competitive encounter. Its only victory, 1-0 against Liechtenstein in 2004, was in a friendly.
Della Valle's goal was his first for the national team, only the 15th ever for San Marino in official competition, and the first since Andy Selva scored in a 3-1 loss to Slovakia in 2010 World Cup qualifying.
"Just scoring at all for our team is a dream, but for a defender it's something nearly unimaginable. So it was incredible," said the 31-year-old.
His joy was short-lived. Poland captain Jakub Blaszczykowski put his team back ahead just one minute after Della Valle leveled the score at 1-1.
But after the match, Della Valle's equalizer ensured the beer and pizza shared by the San Marino team went down a little easier.
Another European lightweight, Luxembourg, had an even better night Tuesday, with a 3-2 win over Northern Ireland, 31 places above it in FIFA's rankings.
San Marino is rock-bottom of its European qualifying group Group H, with eight losses in as many games. But thanks to Della Valle, its goal difference is now marginally less horrific: 1 goal scored, with 43 conceded.
He scored one of those, too — an own goal that got England rolling to its 8-0 spanking of San Marino in March. Della Valle also had the thrill of captaining San Marino before a crowd of 86,000 at Wembley last October. England — which leads the group with 16 points — won that game 5-0.
"When you walk out first at Wembley and there are 85,000 fans it's something that takes your breath away and for the first 15 minutes your head is swirling," he said. Tuesday's goal "was more an explosion of joy."
Della Valle dedicated the goal to Federico Crescentini, his former San Marino teammate who drowned at age 24 while vacationing in Mexico in 2006, said Gasperoni.
San Marino next plays Moldova away and then receives Ukraine, co-host of the 2012 European Championship with Poland. Ukraine won 9-0 when San Marino traveled to Lviv last week.
But just as every dog dreams of having its day, San Marino clings to the hope that it will win a competitive match eventually. San Marino's Under-21 team led the way with a 1-0 win against Wales in European qualifying this month. That was the first competitive victory for any San Marino national team since its Under-17s beat Andorra 2-1 in 2002.
"We can't think to win against Poland, Ukraine, England, the Netherlands, big, big teams," said Gasperoni. "But in Europe, there are also small teams and if we play against Malta, Armenia, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, probably we can win."
-- John Leicester
FIFA closes New Zealand 'ineligible player' case
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — FIFA has closed a disciplinary case against New Zealand over claims it fielded an ineligible player in a World Cup qualifying match.
FIFA on Wednesday confirmed all charges "are dismissed in full" relating to New Zealand's 2-0 win at the Solomon Islands on March 26. It was New Zealand's last match in Oceania qualifying after it already advanced to an inter-continental playoff round.
New Zealand included Australian-born defender Andrew Durante in the team that beat the Solomons in an effort to force the sport's world governing body to make a conclusive decision on his eligibility.
The 31-year-old Durante became a New Zealand citizen shortly before the match after living in New Zealand for five years.
FIFA had initially questioned whether Durante had completed a period of residential qualification in time for his debut because of a three-month period he spent on loan to Sydney FC in 2011.
New Zealand will reach the World Cup in Brazil if it wins a two-game intercontinental playoff in October and November. It will face the fourth-placed team from the CONCACAF final group, which could be Mexico.
Trapattoni out as Ireland coach
DUBLIN (AP) — The Football Association of Ireland has terminated coach Giovanni Trapattoni's contract after the Italian veteran struggled to keep the team in contention for next year's World Cup.
The soccer federation and Trapattoni say they have mutually decided to end the contract a year early. Trapattoni had been due to stay through June.
The 74-year-old Trapattoni successfully guided Ireland to the 2012 European Championship, but speculation on his dismissal had grown since the Irish lost all their group matches at last year's tournament.
Wednesday's announcement comes after Ireland lost to Sweden at home on Friday and at Austria on Tuesday in World Cup qualifying.