MOSCOW – To reach “el quinto partido,” the almost-mythical fifth game, you’re likely going to have to beat a pretty good team on the way. And unfortunately for Mexico, for a quarter century the World Cup has been serving up a regular and ruthless reminder of its place in soccer’s rigid hierarchy. El Tri is good enough to get out of its first-round group, but not over the subsequent hurdle. Because there, a different sort of challenge awaits.
There have been six consecutive round-of-16 exits, with the last three coming to Argentina (twice) and the Netherlands. But Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio has insisted there’s no curse. It’s just been a matter of quality. Now, after Sunday’s deserved 1-0 win over world-champion Germany here at the Luzhniki Stadium, there’s no question that the requisite level of quality exists. Mexico played its 2018 World Cup opener on its terms, could’ve and probably should’ve been up by multiple goals at halftime and did well to weather the inevitable German storm toward the end.
This Mexican team, which is the product of Osorio’s three years of study, tinkering and rotaciones—not to mention the development of a more refined, experienced and cosmopolitan corps of players—had a plan and executed it to perfection. The result was a milestone win that sets up Mexico nicely in Group F, with South Korea to come June 23. There’s obviously no guarantee El Tri will see the quarterfinals. But there’s now no reason it can’t.
"Our objective is in the long term," Mexico forward Javier Hernández said. "We want to get to the final. We have to go step by step. This is was an important step, but it wasn’t the only team that we want to beat. We still have to play Korea and Sweden so we have to enjoy, but keep calm."
The imploding, infighting French team in 2010 is the only squad from a top-tier soccer nation Mexico has defeated at a World Cup. Second-tier equals like Belgium, Cameroon and Croatia–they were managable. But El Tri hadn’t proven it could beat the very best. It kept hitting the same ceiling.
“But it happened today,” Federación Mexicana de Fútbol general secretary Guillermo Cantú told SI.com at the Luzhniki. “We knew that when the draw came, we didn’t want to play against Germany. But once we got them, we started the preparation—way back then. I think that helps to start building something, and obviously it’s a process.”
That process, which Osorio confirmed started six months ago, produced a gameplan that left Germany grasping. At last year’s Confederations Cup, Mexico tried to beat Die Mannschaft with the ball. And El Tri took twice as many shots, put more on target, earned nearly three times as many corner kicks and held 58% of the possession. But Germany won, 4-1.
This time, Mexico won without it. Time and again on Sunday, Germany’s outside backs (Joshua Kimmich and Marvin Plattenhardt) and the midfield tandem of Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira were lured too high. And time and again, Mexico forced a turnover and found ample space between the German lines, countering with speed and an impressive knack for finding a line of attack that put the champions off balance.
In the 35th minute, El Tri took a deserved lead as Hernández received a pass from midfield, dribbled forward and fed Irving Lozano on the left. The PSV Eindhoven star turned a leaning Mesut Özil inside-out then beat Manuel Neuer at the near post.
“It’s definitely the best goal I’ve ever scored in my entire life,” Lozano said afterward. “We all dream of playing in the World Cup and to start in such a positive way, it’s definitely my best goal.”
There could’ve been others. The only criticism of Mexico’s performance concerns the finishing. Multiple odd-man breaks were squandered, and sometimes it was as if Hernández, Lozano, Carlos Vela and others almost couldn’t handle the amount of time and space they had created. It was surreal to see Germany so unhinged. It took the favorites until halftime to catch their breath and adjust, although they came close to leveling the score via a Kroos free kick a few minutes after Lozano’s goal.
“What’s most important is how we managed the match,” Lozano said. “My teammates and I did some great work. We all ran our hearts out.”
Osorio knew what was coming in the second half. Germany pulled Plattenhardt back more frequently as cover and did a better job avoiding turnovers in the middle third of the field and switching the point of attack. Chances were created, but Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa was outstanding, and Germany missed on a couple of decent looks. And still, Mexico countered. Vela had a golden opportunity in the 57th minute and midfielder Miguel Layún broke free late, among others.
At the end, Hernández was in tears, and the Luzhniki was roaring thanks to a crowd of 78,011 that looked and sounded heavily pro-Mexican. No fan base has been more present and obvious this week in Moscow than the one following El Tri. Many traveled from Mexico, obviously, but there also are thousands from the U.S., from which more World Cup tickets were bought than any country save Russia.
"Since the anthem started, everybody knew who the home team was," Ochoa said.
Osorio paid tribute to them following the win and then added, “For those who don’t support us yet, we will work to convince them to join us.”
Sunday helps. A deep run will do even more. Even before beating Germany, there was a sense that this Mexican squad was different. It’s mature (the third oldest at the tournament) and arrives with a more diverse set of experiences. On the 2006 Mexico squad that lost to Argentina, for example, just four men played abroad. Only 12 years later, that number is 14.
“That helps a lot,” Cantú said. “We’re hoping to develop a plan with the clubs in Mexico, and obviously the national team, to get more players, younger players, into the best teams in the world at a younger age. This will help develop everything we’re doing in Mexico.”
That can happen thanks to results like this.
“I think this is a milestone for Mexican football,” Osorio said. “I think that now more attention will be paid to Mexican players.”
There are still three more games to play before reaching “el quinto partido.” They’ll come against “tough, tough competitors,” Cantú said. But the toughest one is now out of the way. Mexico has never beaten a team like this on the biggest stage, and now it’s in position to dream of doing so again.
"Nobody can tell us not to dream," Ochoa said. "We are here in this competition and we want to stay until the last day. We know it is going to be difficult, but we know that we can compete against any team."