Bittersweet could be one way to describe Mexico’s Fifa World Cup history: They have now reached the knockout stages for the seventh consecutive time despite losing 0-3 to Sweden in their last group game.
However, not once in the previous editions have they managed to get into the last eight. It’s been 22 years of agony, conceding late goals or the inevitable – getting knocked out by opponents with superior pedigree. The latter may stretch on for some more time. Five-time champions Brazil await them in Samara on Monday in the round of 16.
This, after Mexico suffered a sea of emotions in a dramatic afternoon in Russia. After falling to a heavy defeat against the Swedes, El Tri suffered an agonising wait to learn their fate in the tournament.
The thousands of Mexico fans who had flocked Ekaterinburg erupted in collective delirium after learning that defending champions Germany were ousted after a stunning 0-2 loss to South Korea.
The celebrations continued outside the stadium and long into the night. Perhaps, their fans too sense their campaign reaching a logical conclusion, as the mighty Brazilians prepare to face them on Monday. Their exit might not be vilified back home compared to the in-depth post mortem that the Germans are currently facing. Mexico promise a smooth ride to the knockout stages but little else.
This is not to say that Mexico lack the nous in big tournaments. They have qualified for 16 editions of the World Cup. There have been 10 title wins in the continental competition, the Gold Cup. Despite having a vastly more popular league, USA were in the shadows of their neighbours for decades.
In the 21st century, though, the Americans have caught up and have had the measure of Mexico. But normal service resumed recently, and it coupled with the 2002 quarter-finalists failing to qualify for the World Cup.
This month also happens to be a good time to wear Mexico’s famous green jersey. Recently, Mexico were told that they will be one of the three nations to host the Fifa World Cup in 2026, thereby becoming the first nation to host the showpiece event three times.
The familiar exit
Even before the thrilling exuberance of Hirving Lozano knocked off one of the legs from Germany’s throne, Mexicans have been a thorn in the flesh of some of their more illustrious opponents; they have twice topped a group that also featured Italy.
Their luck during penalty shootouts, though, has been wretched at best. Bulgaria denied them of a last-eight spot in 1994. This was preceded by a shootout against West Germany in 1986 in the quarter-finals, their best finish. Taking into account Germany’s immaculate record from the penalty spot, Mexico are excused for finishing second best there.
Germany would provide further heartbreak. In 1998, Mexico were 15 minutes away from sealing another quarter-final berth before Jurgen Klinsmann and Olivier Bierhoff’s strikes sank them. That dreaded penalty spot haunted them in the last edition too as Holland’s Klaas-Jan Huntelaar kept his cool in stoppage time following what was a contentious call from the referee. That loss, of course, took place before the North Americans suffered back-to-back exits against Argentina.
What surely hurt them the most was the 2002 edition, which saw USA enter the last-eight at Mexico’s expense.
Another David vs Golaith story?
Mexico’s stunning jail-break on Thursday coupled with setting up a date with Brazil begs a bigger question. Will Mexico make the next step or are they just unlucky with draws? At what point do the heavyweights fear them?
And how much does one read into the Sweden game? An evenly-matched first half preceded a dominant phase for the Swedes, where they scored three goals. The European outfit’s physical style and well thought-out counter-attacks saw the Mexicans scurrying for cover.
Spare a thought for the vibrant, noisy Mexicans fans. Their side, despite winning their first two games, would have been knocked out had Germany got three points – a scenario that is a rarity in World Cups. But what does not make for pretty reading is that teams with pedigree far lesser than Mexico have gone further than the round of 16 since 1994, which includes rivals USA.
As for the task at hand, they would have watched how Switzerland and Costa Rica, for large periods, troubled the Brazilians by closing down space between the defence and midfield line. Mexico’s counter-attacks should be as effective as they were against Germany. It remains to be seen, however, if Lozano and Carlos Vela get to use their pace and guile on the counter-attack as easily as they did against the Germans.
Elsewhere, Brazil are fighting their own battle, thirsty for revenge after their semi-final humbling against Germany at home in 2014.The country that produced Jorge Campos, Claudio Sanchez, Rafael Marquez, and Javier Hernandez can dream. The fact remains that they need to produce one of the greatest upsets in the knockout stages to make the jump from a World Cup also-ran to one that commands respect.