Mexico: a country with the 11th largest population in the world, a football mad culture, an enduring presence at World Cups, yet holders of no silverware. To date there have been twenty World Cups, and Mexico have taken part in 15 of them, but the furthest they have ever reached is the quarter-finals; it’s most certainly a case of always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
El Tri are ingrained into the competition’s history as participants in the first ever World Cup match in 1930 – a 4- 1 loss to France. They have been important participants throughout the history of one of the world’s biggest sporting events. The country’s stature in world football is further emphasised by the fact that they have twice hosted the prestigious competition, in 1970 and 1986; a feat matched only by football superpowers Brazil, Germany, France and Italy. As a result, Mexico has played host to some great World Cup moments: Italy’s ‘Game of the Century’ triumph over West Germany in the 1970 semi- final, Gary Lineker’s hat-trick against Poland in 1986 and Diego Maradona’s infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal against England to name a few.
There is no doubt that the country would love to be more than a mere footnote in World Cup history. Their passionate supporters crave success and the nation’s footballing history contains some illustrious names, from the legendary Hugo Sánchez, through rock-solid veteran centre-back Rafael Márquez, to the recently retired Cuauhtémoc Blanco. These players have won individual honours and several prestigious club competitions. They have contributed to a Confederations Cup victory, nine Gold Cups, and most recently to the first ever summer Olympics gold medal, but in the green of Mexico, on the biggest stage of all, they have consistently come up short.
Mexico have undoubtedly provided some special World Cup moments. Who can forget Manuel Negrete’s wonderful acrobatic volley in 1986 or Jared Borgetti’s ingenious back- header in 2002? Ultimately, though, these special moments, goals and emotion have counted for nothing. Over 120 million Mexicans have been left disappointed every four years. There is always positivity – encouraging displays and the odd upset – but fleeting hope is invariably followed by the familiar disappointment of an early exit. The Mexicans have made it out of the group stages in the last six World Cups, only to fall at the second hurdle, often by the narrowest of margins.
In Brazil last year, after a frantic, disorganised qualification period, expectation once again gripped a nation, but Miguel Herrera’s team could not better their predecessors. Los Verdes conformed to type perfectly; initially inspiring confidence with good performances to escape a tough group before succumbing to a late Dutch fight back to lose 2-1 in the round of 16. This has forever been Mexico’s weakness. Does it stem from naivety, mental weakness, or have they consistently fallen foul of fortune? In the wider picture, does their mediocre World Cup record accurately reflect their standing, or have they underperformed?
There is no doubt that Mexico have got better with age. Having officially founded a football association in 1927 they did not have much time to get up to speed before the first World Cup. El Tri didn’t get off to an auspicious start, either. The 4-1 loss to France on July 13, 1930, paved the way for several decades of defeats. After finishing pointless and bottom of Group 1 behind Argentina, France and Chile in 1930, Mexico did not qualify for the next two pre-war competitions.
When Mexico returned in 1950 they began a long period of toughening up. Regularly outclassed by more technically gifted teams who benefitted from stronger domestic leagues, Mexico wandered the group stage wilderness. In Brazil they conceded 10 goals in defeats to the hosts, Yugoslavia and Switzerland to finish bottom. Four years later, at Switzerland 54, it was a similar story as Brazil ran out 5-0 winners to condemn Los Verdes to another miserable exit.
Thrown in at the deep end, it took Mexico until their fourth tournament to learn how to swim. In 1958, an 89th minute equaliser earned them a 1-1 draw with Jimmy Murphy’s remarkable Wales side, who defied the odds at their only tournament to reach the quarter-finals in Sweden.
This was Mexico’s first ever point at a World Cup. Even still, a fourth successive bottom placed finish hardly inspired confidence.
Mexico were showing signs of improvement and on June 7, 1962, at the home of CD Everton in Viña del Mar, Chile, Mexico finally, at the fourteenth time of asking, won a match at a World Cup. Czechoslovakia were put to the sword in the final group game and Los Verdes ran out 3-1 winners. It was a serious coup; Czechoslovakia contained that year’s Ballon d’Or winner, Josef Masopust, and finished the tournament as runners-up behind the indomitable Brazil. The win was more than a mere consolation – bottom place was avoided and El Tri’s World Cup curse had been broken.
England’s hosting of the World Cup in 1966 brought steady progress as Mexico drew games against France and Uruguay at Wembley, but the real breakthrough had come off the pitch two years earlier. Mexico saw off competition from Argentina, Australia, Colombia, Japan and Peru to be chosen as host for the 1970 World Cup. In doing so they became the first country outside of Europe or South America to host.
Home conditions proved decisive as for the first time ever Mexico progressed from the group stages. Played from the end of May to mid-June in stifling heat and at considerable altitude, the home nation had a considerable advantage. A staggering 107,000 people turned up for their opening game against the Soviet Union in the capital city’s Estadio Azteca to further tilt the playing field with vociferous support. Mexico finished second in the group without conceding a goal, and with only sixteen sides competing, they went straight into a quarter-final showdown against Italy. The highest altitude venue at Toluca did not work in El Tri’s favour, however, as the Italians beat them 4-1 on the way to the final.
Inconsistencies then plagued the national side as they failed to build on the relative success of 1970. Mexico endured a period of limbo, failing to qualify for the following tournament before finishing bottom of a mediocre group at Argentina 78, shipping twelve goals in the process. 1982 was a particular low point for Los Verdes, as they yet again failed to qualify for the World Cup. Despite Hugo Sánchez beginning to fulfil his goalscoring ability, they were eliminated from qualifying by World Cup first-timers and Central American minnows Honduras and El Salvador.
It was only when Colombia, who were due to host in 1986, resigned responsibility due to economic pressure that Mexico were given another opportunity. FIFA chose Mexico over the USA and Canada, giving El Tri another excellent chance of making an impact on home soil.
Coached by the now legendary Bora Milutinović, a side of based around a core of players from Liga MX and Hugo Sánchez got through their group before Negrete’s famous goal helped see off Bulgaria 2-0 in following round. A rigid defence from the Mexicans kept West Germany at bay while Harald Schumacher’s goal lived a charmed life at the other end. Mexico’s best ever World Cup campaign came to an end like many others have, falling foul of German penalty-taking prowess and two Schumacher saves to bow out in the last eight.
Milutinović left shortly after and once again Los Verdes did not build on a hosting success. They were disqualified from competing at Italia 90 after the Cachirules scandal of 1988. The Mexico under-20 side had knowingly used overage players at the 1988 CONCACAF tournament and as a result FIFA banned all Mexican sides from competing at tournaments for two years.
The 1990s saw an increase in the quality of the domestic league, more players moving to Europe, and heightening professionalism, but Mexico could not stray off the path of World Cup middle-weight. Comfortably better than the small sides, but still frustratingly lagging behind the traditional elite, 1994 began a period of six straight round of 16 World Cup exits.
The World Cup sides of 1994 to present day have all got one thing in common: they were built around a few stand-out players and supplemented with steady, hard-working Liga MX players. They have also all followed the same pattern of World Cup disappointment: qualify from group stages in confidence-building fashion and lose to a more established side, often by a narrow margin, in the following round.
Hugo Sánchez is undoubtedly the country’s greatest ever player. He scored a staggering 479 goals in 849 games, he won the European Golden Shoe and stands as one of Real Madrid’s finest ever players. Yet he only scored one goal in eight World Cup matches and he missed a penalty in front 115,000 adoring fans in Mexico City in 1986.
If Sánchez is Mexico’s greatest player, then Claudio Suárez is a most certainly a player representative of El Tri’s international standing and their World Cup performances. Suárez was part of three World Cup squads in a career spanning from 1994 to 2006. He captained the side for many years and picked up a mammoth 178 international caps, the second most of any player to have played for any county. He is nicknamed The Emperor, loved by fans, but in his 21-year career he only played in Mexico and the USA.
Here is a player indicative of Mexican football as a whole: hard-working, tenacious, but ultimately lacking the quality required to take Los Verdes to the next level. In the last decade Mexico have been ranked as high as fourth and as low as 33rd by FIFA, which shows the potential that is there, despite the limitations of these rankings.
There are other factors that continue to hold back Mexican football. Geography plays an uncontrollable part in El Tri’s round of 16 World Cup brick wall. Mexico qualify for World Cups through the CONCACAF qualification pool against North American, Central American and Caribbean teams. Their sternest competition comes from sides like Costa Rica and the USA. Although the national side can increase competitiveness by playing friendlies against stronger teams, the fact remains that their qualification campaign is not wholly representative of the challenge that awaits them at the finals.
The Mexican domestic league, Liga MX, presents a similar problem. As has been mentioned, over the years the majority of Mexican World Cup squads have been comprised mainly of domestic league players. According to the International Federation of Football History and Statistics, Liga MX is currently the 15th strongest league in the world. Whilst this is not to be discredited it does show that Mexican football is some way behind the big European and South American leagues. The step up in quality puts Mexico at an immediate disadvantage.
Of course this disparity is gradually being rectified as more and more Mexican players are moving to Europe. While Liga MX may well continue to improve in standard, if El Tri is going to become serious World Cup competitors in the future then their players need to be consistently exposed to higher quality opposition and competitions.
Despite falling over an all-too-familiar hurdle in Brazil, Herrera’s side showed many signs of promise. After their worst qualifying record in 32 years, which required a playoff against New Zealand, and cost three managers their jobs, Mexico’s hastily assembled squad won many admirers. El Tri’s traditional work-rate and organisation was combined with skill and speed to produce a dangerous mix.
With Herrera bringing his unique style of management, Giovani dos Santos and his brother Jonathan, and Raúl Jiménez hitting form in Spain, Diego Reyes and Héctor Herrera developing at Porto, and with qualification rarely a stretch, Russia 2018 could finally see Mexico shatter their World Cup glass ceiling.
By Felix Keith. Follow @felixkeith