MEXICO CITY — Parents of sick children in the Mexican capital make pilgrimages to pray to the Holy Child of Miracles, a Christ child statue perched on a tiny throne in a centuries-old Catholic parish. Every four years, Mexican soccer fans make pilgrimages to the St. Gabriel Archangel parish, too, praying for World Cup success to the Christ child, which gets dressed in Mexico’s iconic three-color uniform for the tournament.
People consider the Christ child a miracle worker, says Carmen Valero, the parish staffer responsible to purchasing the uniform and dressing the statue. But when asked about the requests for success on the soccer field, she pithily responded, “He performs miracles, but not that many.”
Miracles seemingly seldom occur for Mexico’s soccer squad. El Tri, as the team is known, has exited the World Cup in the round of 16 in six consecutive tournaments — often in calamitous or heartbreaking style, provoking the lament, “We played like never before, and lost like always.” Or as Valero stated somewhat sourly, “We’re always suffering.”
The miracle Mexican fans are praying for at this year’s quadrennial in Russia is advancing to the fabled “fifth match” — a spot in the quarterfinals, which the team hasn’t reached since it hosted the tournament in 1986. Hopes aren’t high, however, as Mexico competes in the rugged Group F, facing defending champion Germany on June 17, then South Korea and Sweden. Brazil would likely await in the round of 16 should Mexico advance.
“Breaking that barrier will pretty much define the World Cup,” said Tom Marshall, a reporter with ESPN who covers El Tri. “If Mexico reach that [fifth] game, it will be a massive success; and if Mexico reach the round of 16, it will be the same as always; and if Mexico exits in the group stage, it will be a disaster. So even before the World Cup you can guarantee the media and the fans’ reaction.”
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Mexico’s recent history in the round of 16 reads like a horror story.
El Tri bowed out to Bulgaria on penalties in 1994; infamously lost to the archrival United States in 2002; was beaten by Argentina on the goal of the tournament in 2006; fell, 2-1, to the Netherlands in 2014 after dominating the first 80 minutes of the game and being victimized by a phantom foul. “No era penal” (“It wasn’t a foul”) is still heard in Mexico four years later.
No one can offer a cogent answer for the failure to reach the fifth match. But it’s come to torment Mexican fans — even if “the players … they’ve never discussed it,” Marshall said.
It’s also become the subject of social commentary and psychoanalysis in a country careening from one crisis to another in recent years and craving international recognition.
Ricardo Trujillo Correa, a psychology professor at the Autonomous National University of Mexico, put the team on the couch when he concluded of the fifth-match obstacle: “The main figure in Mexican football culture is the Mexican who doesn’t give up. That’s followed by symbolic vindication in the face of an eternal confrontation with a powerful team and, finally, dignity: ‘It was very difficult match, but we gave 100 percent and we have to keep working.’ ”
Fans flocking to the Estadio Azteca last Saturday for Mexico’s exhibition match with Scotland, the team’s send-off before heading to Europe, expressed pessimism about a breakthrough in Russia.
“There’s a lot of maturity on this team, but we don’t have a good coach,” Ivan Estrada, a government employee, said outside the stadium. “If Mexico gets to the fifth game it will be because of effort and because of the players. It would be easier if there were another coach.”
The Colombian-born, U.S.-educated Juan Carlos Osorio has failed to win over fans despite winning 66 percent of his matches as Mexico’s manager. Boos rang down from the bleachers in the Estadio Azteca after the Scotland match — which El Tri won, 1-0 — along with shouts of “Osorio, out!”
Many still nurse a grudge over a humiliating 7-0 thrashing at the hands of Chile in the 2016 Copa America tournament. Mexico subsequently sailed through World Cup qualifying, however, avoiding the angst of 2014, when only a late U.S. goal against Panama kept Mexico’s hopes alive.
A few fans complain that Osorio is foreign. He’s also acknowledged interest in jobs beyond Mexico after the World Cup. Many still yearn for Miguel Herrera, whose hotheaded antics on the sideline in 2014 fired up fans and players alike.
Most of the complaining comes down Osorio’s constant on-field tinkering and professorial approach.
The embarrassment against Chile “could have been avoided playing sensible football, not trying to reinvent the wheel,” said Esteban Illades, editor of the Mexican magazine Nexos.
Osorio has backers: mainly the Mexican Football Federation and players.
“The players are 100 percent behind him. They say it publicly and they say it privately. Osorio has won them over,” Marshall said. “The fans want him to leave, a lot of the media probably want him to leave, but the federation want him to stay because they feel he’s done a good job and Osorio is going to have a lot of offers.”
Mexico in 2018 is fielding a golden generation of players, some of whom tasted success as U-17 World Cup champions in 2005 and 2011 and Olympic gold medal winners in 2012. The victories shattered perceptions of underachieving on the world stage and overcame old stereotypes such as Mexicans don’t work well in teams. Roughly half the roster plays in Europe — a record for a Mexican squad — where competition is stronger.
“On paper … it’s a strong team,” said Minelli Atayde, soccer reporter with the newspaper Milenio. “They have various players, who play in Europe. There’s an interesting mix of experience and youth and, above all, lots of talent. The problem is … they still haven’t showed it on the pitch.”
Fans might express misgivings, but one group showing unwavering support for the team has been politicians — especially as Mexico holds federal elections July 1 and its group stages matches will occur during the campaign’s home stretch.
“You will do what no one else will: unite” people of all parties,” President Enrique Peña Nieto told the team in an appearance at the presidential palace last week. “You will make possible the great miracle of seeing everyone together.”
El Tri might also make another miracle happen: uniting populations on both sides of the border at time when the U.S. president routinely trashes Mexico and promises to fence off the frontier. The U.S. national team, after all, did not qualify, and El Tri already enjoys a huge following north of the border.
“It’s a bonding experience,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, professor at the Center for Teaching and Research in Economics. “Mexico and the U.S. need that more than any trophy.”
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