For Mexico, an Unlucky Seven

DOHA, Qatar — Of all the soccer playing countries in the world — and there are many — only two can boast of advancing out of the group stage at the last seven World Cups. One of the teams is Brazil. The other may be a tad surprising: Mexico.

After their initial success, the two teams’ fortunes have diverged. Having made its way into the knockout round of every World Cup since 1994, Brazil has won two World Cup finals and played in a third.

Mexico? Each time it reached the round of 16, it promptly lost the next game and went home.

That legacy of fourth-game failure by El Tri, as the national team is known, has created immense pressure and criticism in Mexico, and at times a toxic relationship between the team and the national news media. If any three words haunt Mexican players and fans alike, they are el quinto partido:thefifth game.

“There is always that pressure of people always talking about ‘that fifth game, that fifth game,’ and it gets stuck in your head,” Carlos Vela, a forward who represented Mexico at the 2010 and 2018 World Cups, said in Spanish in an interview earlier this year.

On the field, Vela said, he didn’t think about that hex. But before World Cup matches, especially leading into the knockout round, he said he would hear comments about “the game we can never get past.”

“In everyone’s mind and conversations, it’s always there,” he continued. “I don’t know if it affects us or not, but it’s there and talked about. You go to an interview and it’s always asked.”

Mexico’s Hirving Lozano, right, competing against Poland on Tuesday, said winning a knockout stage game is always on his mind.Credit…Glyn Kirk/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mexico will hear those familiar rumblings again soon enough in Qatar. It tied its first game, against Poland, but its group is wide open after unheralded Saudi Arabia stunned Argentina on Tuesday. Hopes are high that this year, at last, will be different.

“We have everything,” said Raúl Jiménez, a forward who is appearing in his third straight World Cup. He mentioned the Mexican national team coach, Gerardo Martino, known as Tata, who, like every leader of the squad during this span, has come under stinging criticism from outside the team during his tenure.

“We’ve been with Tata for four years,” said Jiménez, 31, who plays his club soccer with the Wolverhampton Wanderers in England. “We know him well, his style of play and what he wants from us. All we have to do is put it to work on the field and win the fourth game.”

A Brief Guide to the 2022 World Cup

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What is the World Cup? The quadrennial event pits the best national soccer teams against each other for the title of world champion. Here’s a primer to the 2022 men’s tournament:

Where is it being held? This year’s host is Qatar, which in 2010 beat the United States and Japan to win the right to hold the tournament. Whether that was an honest competition remains in dispute.

When is it? The tournament opened on Nov. 20, when Qatar played Ecuador. Over the two weeks that follow, four games will be played on most days. The tournament ends with the final on Dec. 18.

Is a winter World Cup normal? No. The World Cup usually takes place in July. But in 2015, FIFA concluded that the summer temperatures in Qatar might have unpleasant consequences and agreed to move the tournament to the relatively bearable months of November and December.

How many teams are competing? Thirty-two. Qatar qualified automatically as the host, and after years of matches, the other 31 teams earned the right to come and play. Meet the teams here.

How does the tournament work? The 32 teams are divided into eight groups of four. In the opening stage, each team plays all the other teams in its group once. The top two finishers in each group advance to the round of 16. After that, the World Cup is a straight knockout tournament.

How can I watch the World Cup in the U.S.? The tournament will be broadcast on Fox and FS1 in English, and on Telemundo in Spanish. You can livestream it on Peacock, or on streaming services that carry Fox and FS1. Here’s how to watch every match.

When will the games take place? Qatar is three hours ahead of London, eight hours ahead of New York and 11 hours ahead of Los Angeles. That means there will be predawn kickoffs on the East Coast of the United States for some games, and midafternoon starts for 10 p.m. games in Qatar.

Got more questions? We’ve got more answers here.

If only it were so simple. Asked to explain why winning that fourth game has been such a problem, current and former Mexican national team players focused on two themes: the team’s state of mind and poor timing.

“We haven’t been mentally strong in decisive and important moments,” said the former forward Luis Hernández, who scored four goals for Mexico at the 1998 World Cup. “The talent is there, the will is there, the preparation is there. But that last bit is missing.”

Héctor Herrera, a midfielder who has played in three straight World Cups for Mexico, said the national team lacked “a little luck and mind-set” during their most recent World Cup collapse. In 2018, Mexico beat Germany and South Korea in their first two games of group play, sparking excitement among fans that it was finally their year.

But in the closing game of the group stage, Mexico crumbled and lost, 3-0, to Sweden, which won Group F. Mexico advanced to the round of 16 only because South Korea defeated Germany. But by finishing second in the group, rather than winning it, Mexico got a tougher matchup in the knockout round: Brazil. El Tri’s tournament ended with a 2-0 loss.Sweden ended up facing Switzerland and beating them, 1-0.

“The Mexican team has talent and quality, and other national teams respect us,” said Guillermo Ochoa, the longtime Mexico goalkeeper who this week became the rare player to appear in five World Cups. “But we need to play the perfect game in the ideal moment.” Ochoa said missed little details — inattention to a throw-in, a momentary defensive lapse, an off-target pass — “have cost us a lot.”

Gerardo Martino, Mexico’s coach, has pushed back on the media’s questions about his team’s determination.Credit…Alfredo Estrella/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In the other instances, Mexico merely ran into bad draws against soccer powers: Argentina (2006 and 2010), the Netherlands (2014) and Germany (1998). Its run of second-round exits began in 1994 with a loss to Bulgaria, but that team went on the reach the semifinals.

The closest Mexico came to breaking the streak, Ochoa said, was during the 2002 World Cup. It had won its group with 7 points after wins against Croatia and Ecuador and a tie with Italy. So while Italy, second in the group, got South Korea, Mexico wound up in a rivalry game against the United States. It lost, 2-0.

Hernández, who appeared as a substitute for Mexico at that World Cup, said the team had erred in looking past a familiar opponent it had beaten regularly. “The mentality was missing,” he said. “The leadership was missing. We were missing a lot of details. We deserved to lose because we didn’t respect the rival of the U.S.”

It is not as if Mexico has not had World Cup success; it a regular participant, after all, and reached the quarterfinals in 1970 and 1986. But each of those tournaments was on home soil. Matching the feat away from home has proved far more difficult.

“I don’t know at what point if we said to do this, it would change our story,” said Herrera, 32, who plays his club soccer for the Houston Dynamo in the United States. “Because if I knew, I would have said it already.”

Entering this World Cup, Martino and his players have faced bitter skepticism from a public that was conditioned to expect another disappointing finish. After every loss — and the team started off the qualifying cycle poorly — Mexican fans and commentators called for Martino’s firing despite his winning record overall. His predecessors endured the same treatment.

“There is no country in the world that keeps so much pressure on a national team coach,” Juan Carlos Osorio, a Colombian, said of the Mexico before he coached it at the 2018 World Cup.

Martino, 60, who is Argentine, has expressed a similar sentiment and, throughout this year he has pushed back at what he perceived as negative questions and challenged the narrative surrounding his team.

During a news conference the day before Mexico’s opening match against Poland on Tuesday, Martino was asked about the team’s lack of intensity. He took issue with the premise. Ochoa, 37, called coverage of the team “a show,” and said, “We don’t even talk about the sport anymore.”

Added Vela, 33: “The passion is so strong in Mexico that reality is lost a little. People only want to see you win and win by a lot of goals and to roll through teams. If not, people want to fire someone.”

In an effort to improve the team’s mental approach before the last World Cup, Mexico’s soccer federation and Osorio hired what they called a mental coach ahead of their trip to Russia. Asked if the move had helped, Vela said, “We didn’t advance, so you draw your conclusion from that.”

Hirving Lozano, a forward who plays his club soccer at PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands, said Mexico’s failure to win a knockout stage game was constantly on his mind. Rather than hiding from that record, Ochoa said it was important to talk about the topic “without fear.”

After outplaying Poland but settling for a scoreless draw, Mexico will meet an old foe, Argentina, on Saturday. Herrera said his team was motivated to transcend its past, for the players and their country.

“We haven’t advanced and we want to go further,” Ochoa said, “and we’re going to try to.”

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