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It’s over for Mexico, both this World Cup and one long, long streak

Mexico won, 2-1, on Wednesday but failed to advance in the tournament. (Ricardo Mazalan/AP Photo)
6 min

LUSAIL, Qatar — Mexico has departed already, and that’s odd, and that’s the end of a remarkable 28-year-old World Cup pattern, and that’s cause for a national reckoning among 130 million citizens, many of whom do like their futbol served with a customary helping of success.

“I will say I assume all the responsibility for this huge failure,” said Gerardo “Tata” Martino, the departing manager from Argentina who has led Mexico since 2019, including that moment this year when he resigned and then didn’t.

“We are the players; we assume full responsibility,” said Luis Chavez, the 26-year-old midfielder whose lovely goal Wednesday night ended Mexico’s limited scoring here in a 2-1 win over Saudi Arabia that just wasn’t quite enough to provide sufficient upending to the Group C standings.

World Cup bracket and knockout round schedule

Martino practiced diplomacy in his comments and exchanges with Mexican reporters, the news conference lacking rancor after recent months that often didn’t, even as he did say the national discussion ought to include journalists who always know exactly what to do, an idea just maybe shared with sarcasm.

He said of the coming analysis: “I am not trying to avoid the question. I am not unaware. But tonight we are in a position of fragility,” and it was not yet time to analyze. Others did not hesitate.

Mexico’s durable, eccentric streak that began way back last century at the 1994 World Cup in the United States finally ended on a loud Wednesday night near the Persian Gulf, where Mexico technically beat Saudi Arabia at booming Lusail Stadium but wound up in third place in Group C behind second-place Poland based on the goal-differential tiebreaker.

That left the Qatar World Cup as the first since Italy 1990 to reach the 16-team knockout stage without Mexico and its colossal cohort of vigorous fans. In seven consecutive World Cups from 1994 through 2018, Mexico surpassed the group stage and lost in the round of 16 seven times — to Bulgaria (on penalties), Germany, the United States, Argentina (on one of the great goals in World Cup history, by Maxi Rodriguez), Argentina again, the Netherlands and Brazil.

That run is over, and Chavez felt “really sad” and not lonely in that. The first question to Martino referenced “the worst World Cup in eight editions” and noted Martino had “been called the favorite villain” in Mexico. Chavez said the players had responsibility but mentioned that “in the second game [against group winner Argentina], we didn’t fully understand what [Martino] wanted to see on the pitch.” In the wee hours after that, the loud comments of Mexican broadcasters rang through the media center, assessing the match and the aftermath.

World Cup schedule, standings and groups

It had ended, and also it had begun.

Argentina had won the group with six points, recovering from its opening and mind-boggling 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia, with Mexico and Poland at four points, one ahead of next-door neighbor Saudi Arabia, which had made such a dent in this event with that opening upset of Argentina in this same giant Lusail Stadium.

“Today it was more difficult for us,” said Saudi Arabia’s French manager Herve Renard, who said his team did not “deserve” a win, “but we don’t have to forget what we did together.”

Everyone had gone through one pulsating Wednesday night, when the concurrent matches of Mexico-Saudi Arabia and Argentina-Poland sorted out Group C with all four group members still contending at the outset, having awakened that day with Poland with four points, Argentina and Saudi Arabia with three and Mexico with one. Both matches reached halftime goalless.

Then Mexico finally scored for the first time in this event, in the 47th minute and the 52nd, goals by Henry Martin off a corner kick when he slithered wonderfully through the throng to knock it in left-footed, and by Chavez on a free kick from atop the box curling to the top right corner right out of a daydream. Those goals loosed bedlam in the large rectangle of Mexican fans in green behind the goal. They began to make noise that drowned out the Saudi noise, no easy feat given the din of that next-door neighbor here.

By then, Argentina had jumped ahead of Poland to the south at Stadium 974, and when that reached 2-0, it looked as if Poland and Mexico would tie with four points and in goal differential and goals scored. In that construct, Poland would advance based on its better behavior as perceived by referees; it had committed only five yellow cards to seven for Mexico.

Whatever the permutation, Mexico had to score again, and score again it did. Almost.

Skillfully and frantically, Mexico tried as if suddenly sprung to life. Chavez had another gorgeous free kick he curled left, and Saudi goalkeeper Mohammed al-Owais guessed well and handled it. Twice Mexico put the ball in the net only to see the offside flag go up, once in the 56th minute when Hirving Lozano drilled in one from behind any suitable defense and once in the 87th, causing a gigantic but brief roar, when substitute Uriel Antuna also got behind all defense for an easy tap-in. “I try to do my best to always encourage them,” Renard said of his players, “but this evening it was difficult to breathe with the intensity Mexico put into the game.”

“I could even dare to say,” Martino said, “we could have scored as many goals as we needed, and we failed. I don’t think we were knocked out in the previous matches but today.”

Mexico pushed and pushed, skying one over the goal early in stoppage time among other attempts that caused sighs, and then at five minutes beyond 90 the whole thing collapsed with a rare Saudi counterattack. It wound up in the Mexico box with Hattan Bahebri feeding to a hero of the Argentina match, Salem al-Dawsari, who slid it easily past goalkeeper Francisco Ochoa. The whistle blew two minutes later, and Mexico had left the party early, its players exhausted, its fans with frowns on the seasoned faces and some tears on the younger ones.

They would all begin the art of diagnosis.

World Cup in Qatar

World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.

Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.

Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.