This article is a part of the 30 day Special Series from Football Bloody Hell devoted to the World Cup 2018.
For one month every four years, the whole world stops. Simply, stops. What follows is 64 emotionally destructive, nerve twisting football matches. Each team, however, can only play a maximum of seven games. For a nation to reach the pinnacle of football, it must beat all of its opponents in these seven matchups.
Countless analysts, coaches, fans have theorised as to what allows a team to conquer the globe. Tactical tweaks, fitness schedule logs, travelling mileage – it’s all discussed. But despite how thorough this search of answers goes, any former winner would disagree with it. They’d attribute the victory to effort, hunger and grit of any professional sportsman. The modest among them would tell it as it is – you can’t reach footballing immortality without a little luck.
Just look at Mexico. Present at every World Cup tournament since 1994, a feat matched only by Brazil and Germany. In fact, Mexico has only missed five World Cups ever. Once by their own volition, in 1938, and they were banned from the 1990 edition. But in all their outings, El Tri have never made it past the quarter-finals. They featured on that stage twice, in the 1970 and 1986 World Cups that they hosted.
That’s when it started going wrong for the Latin nation. Drawn against Germany in the quarter-finals of 1986, Mexico did themselves proud. The tight contest went all the way to the penalty shootout, which, arguably, it shouldn’t have. Germany got a red card early in the second half and Mexico failed to capitalise. They did score, by a goal scramble but it was ruled as offside. There were vehement protests, but there always are. And on penalties, the Germans never lose.
From there, the curse kicked off. Mexico were banned from appearing at the 1990 World Cup for falsifying documents of older-aged players in youth tournaments. From 1994 onwards, Mexico reached the round-of-16 every time and suffered gruelling heartbreak every time.
Drawn against Bulgaria in 1994, El Tri were the favourites. Not by comparisons of talent and team, but because the Mexicans were better prepared to play a full 90 minutes under the scorching New Jersey glaze. The match ended up lasting 120 minutes, for which the Bulgarians could not physically cope. Perplexingly, Miguel Mejía Barón, Mexico’s manager, did not make a single substitution. El Tri ended up losing on penalties, again. And a very bemused nation was left to stew in their misery for four years.
The 1998 matchup justified the wait. Mexico were to face Germany again. A chance for revenge. El Tri came tantalisingly close. Luis Hernández scored first in the second half to make it 1-0. Soon afterwards, Mexico broke at pace. The counter was chaotic and the white shirts could not cope. The ball fell to Hernández in the six yard box. Literally a metre away from making it 2-0, Hernández meekly shot straight at the goalkeeper. Germany went on to score two goals in the final 15 minutes. And Mexico was sent home in tears once more.
In 2002, the world was treated to a fest. Neighbouring nations Mexico and the United States were to clash in the round-of-16. Perhaps high on hubris, or perhaps just unprepared, El Tri were brushed off. The United States won the game 2-0 by the stroke of a Bruce Arena’s tactical wizardry. All Mexicans spent the night cleaning up their premature party decorations.
2006 saw Mexico face Argentina, and surprisingly there wasn’t much to complain about in their 2-1 defeat. Mexico took the lead from a set-piece with a goal from captain Rafael Márquez., before conceding the equaliser to another set-piece play. Argentina scored the eventual winner in extra-time. There was nothing illegal or shady about it. In fact, it was a purely struck half-volley from the edge of the penalty box. There is no shame to lose to a wonder-goal like that. But, it is wildly infuriating to have an opponent score his best ever goal against you. Maxi Rodríguez never hit a ball like that again.
Funnily, football and destiny seem to coincide. Mexico were to face Argentina once more in 2010. 25 minutes into the match, Argentina took the lead as Carlos Tevez scored one of the most blatantly offside goals of all. Mired in disbelief, El Tri lost its concentration and conceded to Gonzalo Higuain just six minutes afterwards. That day, injustice won.
Then came 2014. Mexico looked closest to qualifying for the quarter-finals as it ever did, leading Louis Van Gaal’s Netherlands 1-0 with minutes to go until the final whistle. The nerves were clearly visible. Van Gaal a far more astute manager than Mexico’s Miguel Herrera, the Oranje was forcing the equaliser. Wesley Sneijder scored it with a rifle of a shot. Still, 1-1 meant that in just two-or-so minutes, there would be extra-time. That never happened. Dribbling with the ball into the penalty box, Arjen Robben was looking for any contact, any movement that would allow him to dive in attempt to win a penalty. He did so, and the referee bought right into it. Klaas Huntelaar scored it, coolly, and Mexico’s curse threw the nation right back into despair.
Of course, football can’t be simplified to such trivial matters of the supernatural. And most nations can make as compelling of a case for their own curse. But, Mexico’s repeated misfortune is pitiful. El Tri are always one of the liveliest bunch at the World Cup. The players are tireless and bring the fans’ passion onto grass. You can see the desire in their eyes, to right past wrongs and deliver new festivities. Sadly, they just don’t have the luck. It’s the little things: bounces of the ball, ricochets off the post, contestable referee decisions – none of it seems to go Mexico’s way.
This year, El Tri are drawn into a group with World Champions Germany, shock contestants Sweden, and minnows South Korea. Should they qualify (in presumably second place, behind Germany), they will face either Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, or Serbia. How cruel will 2018 get?