Perhaps the dream of the quinto partido, the fifth game, died last Wednesday in Yekatarinburg. All Mexico needed to ease into the butter-soft half of the knockout-stage bracket was a tie with Sweden. But it crumbled in a 3-0 capitulation, meaning it would face Brazil instead of Switzerland in the round of 16.
And, well, that turned a first quarterfinal berth since 1986 – and a first at a World Cup not held on Mexican soil – from a likelihood into a long shot.
Or maybe it began to crumble when Mexico was the more threatening team for the first 20 minutes or so but failed to nab a goal for it to defend the rest of the game against the favored-yet-pressured Brazilians.
Was it when its talismanic goalkeeper Memo Ochoa denied Neymar one-on-one in the 25th minute? He’d saved them for the first of many times, but the momentum swung decidedly towards Brazil thereafter, forcing Mexico into trying to counter-punch the ever-attacking yellow jerseys – which continued to be sloppy in their execution, as they have all tournament.
Was it just before Neymar got the winner in the 51st minute? Because Mexico squandered its best look just moments earlier. On another break, Jesus Gallardo took an ill-advised shot when Chucky Lozano and Chicharito Hernandez were much better positioned.
Mere seconds before Neymar scored. pic.twitter.com/5bG92ryN2K
— Alexander Abnos (@AnAbnos) July 2, 2018
At the other end, Willian then blazed through the Mexico box and cut the ball across for Neymar to slide into the net, registering the first goal in a 2-0 victory.
And that, officially anyway, is when Mexico’s misery was extended to a full 24 years – just a year shy of a chronological generation. It was all over when Neymar raced through the defense in the late going and teed up Roberto Firmino for the second tap-in goal.
For the seventh World Cup in a row, a run going back to 1994, Mexico was left stranded in the round of 16. Whether you believe in that sort of thing or not, this now feels very much like a curse.
Consider the evidence of El Tri’s bad luck.
• 1994: Mexico loses to the tournament’s Cinderella team Bulgaria on penalties.
• 1998: Mighty Germany comes back from a 1-0 deficit with goals in the 75th and 86th minute.
• 2002: The hated archrivals from the United States prevail 2-0.
• 2006: Argentina needs an extra-time goal to advance.
• 2010: Mexico runs into Argentina again and loses 3-1.
• 2014: The Netherlands prevail on a penalty deep in injury time that most Mexicans maintain wasn’t really a penalty.
• 2018: Mexico wastes its group stage advantage and runs into the last big tournament favorite, keeping the game close until the end, but loses again.
The fourth game. Mexico always goes out in the fourth game, breeding a kind of national obsession with finally reaching that fifth. The quinto partido. The elusive promised land.
Now, at the soonest, Mexico will reach it in 2022, going 36 years without reaching the quarterfinals.
This one will sting as much as any of them. Not just because Mexico played well against the five-time World Cup champions, who are now surely a good bet for a sixth. But because a splendid generation – maybe Mexico’s best – was at its peak. Ochoa, and stalwarts Andres Guardado, Carlos Vela, Hector Moreno, Hector Herrera and Hernandez are all at an age where they’re experienced yet still in their primes. They won’t be in four years. Even the 39-year-old warhorse Rafa Marquez could still play a role, while young stars like Lozano provided energy.
The mix seemed to be just right. This was supposed to be Mexico’s time.
It wasn’t Mexico’s time.
To many, El Tri had been the sensations of the tournament. That reputation was quickly earned with an unlikely 1-0 upset of world champions Germany in their opening game, setting Die Mannschaft on a path to a humiliating group stage elimination. Lozano had gotten the goal, making him a quick World Cup darling, followed around by chants of Eeeeel Chucky Lozaaaano ever since, to the tune of the White Stripes’ immutable Seven Nation Army.
Mexico had traveled with an enormous contingent of fans in Russia, and they were beloved by the locals. For their cheerfulness and their habit of doing things like going around thanking every South Korean they could find – after that already-eliminated team had saved the Mexicans by beating Germany and undoing the loss to Sweden. They’d been so boisterous that Marquez had to politely ask them to pipe down outside the team hotel one night so the players could get some sleep.
In Samara on Monday, those fans once again made it feel like a home game for Juan Carlos Osorio’s men. And that drove their team, much of which was newly bleach-blond for some team-building or superstitious reason, to make a fiery start to a hectically-paced game, in spite of the 91-degree heat at kickoff.
Mexico managed to subdue Neymar in the first half, and even Philippe Coutinho, the tournament’s standout player thus far, wasn’t terribly influential. So instead, Willian ran riot. Brazil had too many weapons for a defensively hampered Mexico – its two best central defenders, Diego Reyes and Nestor Araujo, missed the tournament with injuries; the 39-year-old Marquez, usually a late defensive reinforcement, had to start as a holding midfielder – to find shelter from all of them. In a wide-open game, Brazil simply made more of all the open spaces. El Tri’s lack of precision in the counter-attack finally caught up with it.
For all its promise in its first two games of the tournament – the Germany upset and a convincing 2-1 win over South Korea – El Tri had fizzled. It’s hard to say the psychological damage the Sweden game did. The prospect of facing Brazil is daunting in the best of circumstances. Losing the top seed and the ensuing matchup advantages in the knockout stage certainly didn’t help.
And so Mexico wound up where it started, as a solid and respected and entertaining team that has yet to make its breakthrough in the 21st century.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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