MEXICO CITY (AFP) - With a resounding victory against New Zealand, Mexico woke up from a nightmarish World Cup qualifying campaign, giving fans a reason to cheer again and likely saving sponsors millions.
The Mexicans are traditional favourites to breeze through qualifiers in their Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football regional group, but El Tri gave their football-mad nation a fright by winning just two of 10 games in the six-nation final round of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
They finished an embarrassing fourth, only earning a spot in the intercontinental play-off against New Zealand after the United States (US), their bitter rivals, saved them by defeating Panama with two last-gasp goals in the final match.
Their poor form angered fans, with a poll last week showing 55 per cent of Mexicans did not think they should compete in Brazil next year.
Even legendary striker Hugo Sanchez said his younger peers didn't deserved to go to the World Cup.
Experts, meanwhile, warned that broadcasters and sponsors would lose hundreds of millions of dollars if El Tri missed the World Cup for the first time in a quarter century.
But Mexico looked like a different team against the All Whites, trouncing the New Zealanders 5-1 in front of a packed 105,000-capacity Azteca Stadium in Mexico City on Wednesday.
With such a big goal difference, it will require a major feat from New Zealand, ranked 79th in the world by Fifa, to turn things around in the second leg of their play-off in Wellington on Nov 20.
While newspapers ran ebullient headlines - "World Cup in Sight" celebrated the sports daily Record - some observers lamented that Mexico risk forgetting that they have been a shadow of the teams that played in 14 of the last 19 World Cups.
If Mexico qualifies, "many will believe that they did a marvelous job while the only thing they have done is to make an entire nation suffer with their bad decisions and management," Sanchez, the former Real Madrid striker, wrote in his column in El Universal.
The Mexican football federation has been under criticism after going through four managers in a handful of games.
Miguel Herrera, who coached Club America to a Mexican league title this year, was recruited last month to shake things up, becoming the fourth manager in just six weeks.
Herrera shocked many by deciding to name only players from the domestic league, leaving out Europe-based stars like Manchester United's Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and Villareal's Giovani dos Santos.
But his decision to field seven players from his Mexico City club proved a success against New Zealand, though few doubt that Chicharito, dos Santos and keeper Guillermo Ochoa of French team Ajaccio will return for the World Cup.
Writer Juan Villoro decried the poor performance of El Tri and blamed it on "the bad organisation of Mexican football".
"Priority was given to business above sports performance," he told MVS radio, saying that numerous player transfers resulted in lack of stability.
"In a way it's too bad if we qualify because it wouldn't turn on the red lights," said the author of the football book God Is Round.
The team's about-face is likely a huge relief to Televisa, the Spanish-speaking world's biggest broadcaster, and sponsors such as Adidas and Coca-Cola.
Mexico sends a large contingent of fans to World Cups and the team enjoys a huge following across the northern border with millions of Mexican migrants in the US.
Dreamatch Solutions, a sports marketing firm, has warned that at least US$600 million (S$749.4 million) were at stake for broadcasters, sponsors and other businesses such as bars and restaurants should Mexico fail to make it to Brazil.