SAMARA, Russia – Poor Mexico. For the seventh World Cup in a row, it goes out in the round of 16, undone once again by the curse of the quinto partido–the failure to reach the fifth game. The 2-0 loss Monday was perhaps not quite so painful as some of the previous fourth-game defeats, but the knowledge that Brazil was simply better will only mitigate the hurt to some extent.
Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio, certainly, was still bristling after the final whistle. His side had begun well, had pressed Brazil and for the first quarter of the game had dominated both possession and territory. There was a slackening of intensity after that, which allowed Brazil more into the game, but what many would have put down simply to the effort of stifling Brazil in ferocious heat, Osorio saw as the fault of Brazil’s play-acting and the willingness of Italian referee Gianluca Rocchi to go along with it.
“I think we did control the game mostly but unfortunately–and I think it’s a shame for football–we wasted a lot of time because of one player," Osorio said. "I think we lost our style in the second half because of the referee. I think we stopped too often. I think this is a very negative example for the world of football and all the children who are following this game. This is a strong sport, a man’s sport and I think there shouldn’t be so much acting. That had an impact on our play.”
He referred in particular to one incident during the second half in which the game was stopped for four minutes. The ball had gone out of play for a Mexico throw-in just in front of the fourth official. Neymar, who had gone to ground to try to retain possession, clamped the ball between his ankles and when Miguel Layun went to retrieve it, he trod on the Paris Saint-Germain forward. It was probably a red card–although the fourth official, who was standing no more than a foot away, saw nothing–but Neymar reacted as though the subject of a violent assault, twisting and jerking in a way that was fairly obviously intended to secure Layun’s dismissal. For around four minutes, the game was held up and when it began again, Neymar was up and running in moments without ill-effect.
Until that moment, it had looked like his would be a story of good Neymar–of what he brings to the game that is positive. He had been Brazil’s greatest threat in the first half and he had scored the opening goal in the second, unlocking the Mexican defense with an astute backheel and then tucking in Willian’s low cross. But then it was largely back to bad Neymar, the indulgent star who flung himself to the ground at every opportunity.
“There was very little contact and every single time the referee stops the game,” said Osorio, who never mentioned Neymar by name, and questioned a reporter who suggested the Brazil No. 10 was the target of his assertion.
Neymar, though, had the last laugh. Set through one-on-one on the final minute, his low cross was half-blocked by Guillermo Ochoa, whose string of excellent saves suggested just how dominant Brazil was in terms of the creation of clear chances. This time, though, the ball fell into the path of a streaking Roberto Firmino to nudge in.
The curse, of course, is not a curse, but it is true that Mexico has been remarkably unfortunate in its last-16 opponents. Since a game against Bulgaria in 1994 that was rendered a lottery by some bizarre refereeing, it has faced Germany, Argentina twice and the Netherlands before Brazil, and it has not enjoyed the best of luck with refereeing decisions. Only in 2002, when it met the USA, was it anything other than an obvious underdog.
Mexico in this tournament began the process that led to Germany’s early exit, but it was also well-beaten by Sweden. It has been inconsistent, and its impressive work in winning the ball back and initiating transitions has not been matched by similar ruthlessness in the final third. Whether Osorio has been a success or not is a matter of some debate, but he is not expected to stay on. He described his future as “irrelevant” adding only that, “We just lost a very important match. It was very painful for all of us. We will have to wait and see what happens over the next few days.”
Throughout his reign, it has felt as though Osorio has been battling Mexican expectations for its national side, and he was clear once again on the need for greater openness and for players to be more willing to travel.
“Mexican football,” he said, “needs to have more players playing abroad so they can train and play with best players in the world. Then our national team will improve.”
Here, certainly, defeat was largely a case of his side running up against an opponent that was more dangerous. But Brazil, perhaps, was also smarter, in both the positive and the negative sense of the word.