Is Mexico's aging squad a boost of World Cup experience or a liability? Assessing Tata Martino's gamble

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DOHA, Qatar -- What do Mexico's Andres Guardado and Guillermo Ochoa have in common with footballing greats such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi?

Like the Ballon d'Or winners, El Tri's veterans are now part of an incredibly exclusive selection of players that have been called up to five World Cups -- a record no player has yet to break.

Along with Ronaldo and Messi, Guardado and Ochoa join the likes of Germany's Lothar Matthaus, Italy's Gianluigi Buffon and Mexican icons Rafael Marquez and Antonio Carbajal, who have all taken part in five tournaments each. For both Guardado and Ochoa, it's an astonishing stretch that began with the 2006 World Cup.

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But as Mexico prepare to begin their World Cup campaign in Qatar on Tuesday, there's more ambivalence from fans and media instead of excitement about the two veterans and several other members of Mexico's old guard.

After the announcement of coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino's final World Cup roster earlier this month -- with an average age of 28.5 -- eyebrows were raised when there was not a single player under 23, including noteworthy exclusions such as Feyenoord's Santiago Gimenez and Braga's Diego Lainez.

There is no lack of experience throughout the Mexican squad, but there are lingering worries about whether some of the players might be past the peak of their abilities. Coupled with just three wins in their past nine matches in all competitions, Mexico's form has many fans and pundits wondering how resilient this squad will be in Qatar.

One day before Mexico's tournament opener against Poland, Martino supported his criticized group of players.

"Like I've always said, this national team, especially in the recent period of time, it's very strong," the coach said Monday during the pregame news conference. "Since the summer until now, the team has started to truly play good games, but the results in general just haven't followed."

Will the results finally turn in El Tri's favor during the World Cup group stage?

Although Ochoa seemed to spend more time Monday criticizing the coverage from Mexican media than discussing the Tuesday game against Poland, the goalkeeper did attempt to flip the script on one of the recent talking points of El Tri not having enough youthful energy in the squad.

"There are a lot of young people [in our squad] that don't have World Cup experience," Ochoa said. "The eagerness of that first game, of that first World Cup, will always be there."

There may even be the same level of eagerness for the 36-year-old Guardado, Mexico's new all-time appearances leader (178 caps) who has stated that this will be his final World Cup, calling it his "last dance."

"I'll play in the World Cup and [then] my participation with the national team will be over, it's my last dream," the Mexico captain told Rondo Magazine earlier this year. "It's the last opportunity to achieve something for the national team."

The drive and motivation will be there from Guardado, Ochoa and many other veterans who have been crucial players in Martino's process, but time will tell if it's the right mix of characters for this World Cup.

For what it's worth, a focus on veterans has worked in the past for Martino. Back in the 2010 World Cup, the Argentine manager took an underdog Paraguay squad with around the same average age (28.1) as Mexico in 2022 to the quarterfinals of the tournament. Twelve years later, can Martino recreate some of that magic?

On Tuesday, the first big test for his roster will be against Poland, a side that will likely be battling with El Tri for the second and final spot from Group C into the knockout round, with Argentina the expected group winner.

Traditionally, Mexico have had a more noteworthy World Cup presence since 1994 with their consistent qualifications into the knockout round in seven consecutive appearances -- in comparison to just three group stage exits for Poland during that same run -- but manager Czeslaw Michniewicz wouldn't accept the notion that Mexico will be the favorites Tuesday in the match at Stadium 974.

"We don't look at Mexico in this way -- we're all at the World Cup," Poland's coach said at the news conference. "We do not give any ranks to our opponents."

Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny also agreed with the idea that El Tri aren't above them.

"I think that the Mexican team is at a similar level that we are," the Juventus goalkeeper said. "It's going to be an interesting game."

Assuming Argentina won't have too much trouble in Group C and that Saudi Arabia don't manage any upsets, the three points available Tuesday will significantly boost the chances of either Mexico or Poland making it into the round of 16.

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If El Tri are able to get three points, it could be enough for a complete 180-degree turn on the negative spotlight that has been put on Martino and his aging squad. Trust in his veterans, on the biggest stage in the sport, would once again prove to be on the path to success.

And yet if Mexico lose, or perhaps even draw, it wouldn't be tough to paint Martino's roster selection as a risky gamble. On a team that seems to have needed youth replacements and a generational change, there would be a sense of a painful regression during the World Cup.

For the time being, Ochoa and Guardado will share the World Cup record for the most World Cup call-ups, but if things don't work in their favor, that might be all that they'll head home with in an early and potentially disappointing exit from the World Cup.