Success for the world’s elite soccer nations this summer will be defined by their ability to add a golden star over their federation’s crest on their jersey. The elite teams of Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Italy, and more recently Spain, aren’t held to the same standard with the remaining 27 teams left the tournament.
For those outside the elite, their expectations and limits vary immensely from one World Cup to the next. A generation of skilled players may dominate in one World Cup cycle and fail to qualify to the preceding competition four years later. Fans will evaluate their team’s squad, level of play leading up to the tournament, and group in which they were placed to help them measure what point their team has reach this World Cup for it to have been an accomplishment. Mexico, unlike most countries, has a consistent bar set every four years. Reach the quarter finals, play the 5th game.
This looming obsession and measurement with the quarter finals is directly correlated to Mexico’s consistency in every tournament. Since the World Cup in 1994 , the Mexican National Team has made it out of the group stage and lost in the round of sixteen. Defeats to Bulgaria, Germany, USA, and Argentina have all left the North American nation with the bitter taste of what could have been. It is from these matches that the phrase “Jugamos como nunca, perdimos como siempre” (we played like we never have, lost like we always do) came about. In all these matches, the team clearly played up to their rival’s levels, and in some even outplayed them. Unfortunately, the end result and history never reflect or remember anything else besides the score when the final whistle is blown.
Most fan’s who saw their team struggle the way Mexico has these past two years would show excitement just going on past the group stage. But hardship in qualifying has also been a common theme in 2002 and 2010 and it had no effect back then. El Tri has proven that they’re a tournament team, and that World Cup Qualifiers are not truly reflective of their potential. This is an entirely new test for Miguel Herrera and his players.
Mexico’s group is neither favorable nor difficult. Being put into the same group as the host Brazil may appear daunting, yet Brazil has struggled in the past against Mexico. Even more of a consolation should be the fact that every other team in the group will face the hosts as well. The biggest key to advancing will be in winning the first game against Cameroon. It may be a close match, but one Mexico should expect to win or at the very least tie if they hope to move forward in the competition. Three points from the first game will allow Mexico to play more compact against Brazil and be more decisive of when to push forward. The odds of coming out with a win or a point may be against them, but the probability is increased if Mexico doesn’t feel they have to go and chase a goal.
By the time they meet with Croatia in the third match, it may all come down to who has the advantage numerically in the table. Croatia is a team that prefers a defensive structure and will be difficult to break down with Herrera’s 5-3-2 formation. Being forced to play an unfamiliar attacking line up against a highly structured defense and potent attack on the counter may prove nearly impossible. This is why Mexico must be going in with any advantage, even if it is just goal differential. Croatia hasn’t shown it can truly use it’s midfielders in a way to constantly create attacking opportunities and if they push a high line it will open up space for Mexico’s wingers. First place in the group seems highly unlikely, but a second place finish is a coin flip at this point.
Should Mexico advance, their fate would be intertwined with what many consider one of the most difficult groups, Group B. Come first or second, they’d most likely face either reigning champions Spain, powerhouse Netherlands, or the recently emerged Chile. It may surprise most people that I believe Spain would be the best match up for El Tri. Both teams favor possession and the encounter will be low scoring and with very few scoring opportunities from both sides. Spain will have possession, but Mexico is a team that likes to have the ball at their feet and wouldn’t give the ball back by attacking as soon as they get the ball. Herrera’s back line of five can, hopefully, prevent any shots from in behind the defense and it will be rely on their center midfielders to clog up the center of the box as much as possible.
Uncertainty has been the general theme for Mexico these past few month. There’s been uncertainty in calling European players, starting goalkeeper, striker pairs, who will replace Montes, basically all over the pitch. That uncertainty translates into what is to be expected of this team as well. The true level of the squad has been difficult to analyze and it may come together during the tournament or send them packing home early.
Reaching the fifth game would mean Mexico would have to get out of a manageable group and then squeak by whichever strong opponent comes their way in the second round. I don’t see Mexico at the level of Spain, Netherlands, or Chile but maybe it’s time for Mexico to finally reach the quarterfinals, even if it is just out of luck instead of merit. If there’s a tournament where this is possible, it’s the World Cup.