WASHINGTON -- Wasn't Mexico supposed to be a bit of sustenance for the European powers in the "Group of Death?"
In the first 13 World Cups, Mexico advanced out of the first round only when it was held in Mexico. It was absent from the 1990 tournament due to an eligibility scandal on one of its junior teams. Its final exhibition this month was a desultory loss to the United States, and Mexico's momentum plummeted further when it lost its World Cup opener to Norway.
Three minutes into the second half of its final Group E game, Mexico was down a goal to Italy and pondering the prospect of elimination, but Marcelino Bernal's equalizer in the 58th minute earned the Mexicans a 1-1 draw and the top spot in a group that tested FIFA's tie-breaking procedures.
"We kept our minds together," said Bernal, after he and his teammates were cheered on by a pro-Mexico crowd of 53,186. "We were able to muster the class and courage."
Mexico, Italy, Ireland and Norway finished 1-1-1 in Group E, and all scored as many goals as they allowed. The Mexicans claimed first place since they scored the most, three, and they will play a round of 16 game Tuesday at Giants Stadium against the Group D runner-up, most likely Nigeria.
Ireland finished second on the basis of its victory over Italy, which thought it might have to wait until the completion of group play tomorrow to discover if it would be one of the four third-place teams to advance. Russia's upset of Cameroon in Group B, however, secured a spot for Italy, which last failed to advance out of first-round group play in 1974.
Italy will next face either the Group A champion, Romania, at the Rose Bowl on Sunday or the Group D champion, most likely Argentina, at Foxboro, Mass., on Tuesday.
When Daniele Massaro, a halftime substitute, ran through the Mexican defense unmarked and converted a chip from Demetrio Albertini into a goal and a 1-0 lead in the 47th minute, Italy looked as if it was ready to put aside all of the angst and finger-pointing that followed its opening loss to Ireland and weigh in as the Group E favorite it was supposed to be.
Even with goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca serving a one-game suspension and veteran back Franco Baresi resting an injury, the Italian defense was impenetrable until Bernal ended its string of scoreless minutes at 226, nearly four hours.
Carlos Hermosillo pushed a pass from left to right across the top of the penalty area to Bernal, who slammed a 20-yard shot past goalkeeper Luca Marchegiani and inside the far left post. Mindful of developments in the Ireland-Norway game at Giants Stadium, Bernal reveled in a goal that took Mexico from the bottom of Group E and sure elimination to the top.
"That's the best goal I've ever scored," said Bernal, a 32-year-old journeyman midfielder appearing in only his 16th international match.
Massaro and Nicola Berti then tested Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos as Italy finished with a 14-10 advantage in shots. It was another slow day for Roberto Baggio, however, as the Italian star finished group play without a goal or an assist. Ignacio Ambriz marked Baggio for the Mexicans.
"I was hopeful when Italy scored the first goal, but I'm not disappointed with the tie," said Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi, who spoke before a round of 16 berth was secure. "It's only fair that Italy move forward."
At least one Mexican admitted that he didn't expect his team to go to Giants Stadium next week as the leading survivor of Group E.
"This was supposed to be the hardest group of all," Campos said, "so I'm a little surprised."