For the seventh consecutive World Cup, Mexico’s tournament concluded in the Round of 16. The ever-elusive fifth game remains difficult to reach. The curse lives on.
El Tri will no doubt be frustrated by that fact. It’s frustrating to come up short again and again and it’s frustrating to not be pushing on in a tournament that started so well. But, despite the loss, despite the elimination and despite the ongoing roadblock of the knockout rounds, the 2018 World Cup should be remembered as a fond one for Mexico, even if it wasn’t as fond as it could have been.
It all ended on Monday for El Tri, who fell, 2-0, to a Brazil team that is, in many ways, the better team. They were better on paper and on the day, surviving an early Mexico push before putting in goals to bookend the second half. Brazil remains a tournament favorite and their performance showed it, unfortunately for Mexico.
The loss was like many that preceded it at this stage. After emerging from the group stage, Mexico simply ran into a challenge it couldn’t overcome. Monday’s loss wasn’t due to fear or invidual mistakes or some curse. Like those that came before, it was due to quality. At this point in time, Mexico isn’t quite ready to take that step, and the 2018 World Cup was a reminder. On its day, Mexico can beat the world’s top teams, and the Germany match showed that. But, in the knockout round of a World Cup, the game changes, and Mexico isn’t quite ready to beat those changes.
Despite all of that, Mexico leaves having impressed many. The win over Germany was a signature moment. The composed win over South Korea was too. Mexico leaves Russia 2-2 and with a one question looming large: what could have been?
What if Mexico handled business against Sweden to secure first place in the group? A more favorable matchup with Switzerland would have loomed large, opening a very real path towards the deeper stages of the knockout round. A more confident, unbeaten Mexico team could have made a real run, but that stinker against Sweden appeared to be a turning point for El Tri.
What if Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez didn’t pick up a knock seconds into the Brazil clash? Without their star forward, the Mexico attack struggled to create, even as El Tri dominated the wings early. The injury forced Juan Carlos Osorio into a trio of early substitutions, forcing his hand in a big way. If ‘Chicharito’ stays healthy, the gameplan goes on. Without him, Mexico was forced into a corner, and you can’t beat Brazil when in that corner.
Changes will surely come. A new coach is almost certain to come in. Up-and-coming players like Jonathan Gonzalez will likely jump in to become centerpieces of the next cycle. Hirving Lozano will likely take over as the team’s big star as he grows into one of the world’s elite young talents. Older stars will be phased out. Even Rafa Marquez.
It’s not a true ending of an era or a changing of the guard. Mexico is good and will almost certainly continue to be good heading into the next cycle. El Trio will have four more years to think about reaching Game 5 and turning those what-ifs into mission accomplished in Qatar in 2022.