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After Seismic World Cup Debut, Chucky Lozano Eyes New Ground for Mexico

Another World Cup, another set of questions regarding Mexico getting over the round-of-16 hump. Despite El Tri’s shaky qualifying campaign and injury woes, their star has belief.

It was 11:32 a.m. on June 17, 2018, when an earthquake struck Mexico City. It was small and seemingly insignificant, nothing like the devastating tremors in its past, but Aztec mythology prophesied that this world of the Fifth Sun will end in an earthquake—so there is always some reason for concern. Soon after, seismologists released a statement:

The earthquake detected in Mexico City originated artificially. Possibly due to massive jumps during Mexico’s goal in the World Cup.

Leave it to a man nicknamed Chucky to cause a fright.

Apart from the aftershock, Hirving Lozano’s 35th-minute goal against Germany in Mexico’s World Cup opener was monumental for a few reasons. Few can say they scored their first World Cup goal in their World Cup debut, but Lozano’s was also match-winner in a 1-0 win over the defending World Cup champions—and proved to be the first assault on a crumbling German façade as Die Mannschaft crashed out of the group stage.

“It was one of the happiest moments in my life,” Lozano says. “It was an explosion of incredible feelings. My debut in a World Cup, and we won. Incredible, wonderful, beautiful.”

It could be described as a moment where the earth stood still for Mexico fans, but clearly that wasn’t the case. Videos of euphoric Mexico fans celebrating the goal enraptured the nation. Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio took to a fetal position on the bench, unable to process the moment.

But Lozano, just 22 at the time, was amped. The electrifying, off-ball run down the left wing, the sublime cutback across his defender, the poise in front of all-world goalkeeper Manuel Neuer—everything about the goal was executed perfectly as if Lozano had anticipated that very moment since the days when a childhood nickname stuck.

Mexico star Hirving Lozano’s World Cup portrait

Lozano stars for Serie A-leading Napoli and returns for his second World Cup with Mexico.

At 11, Lozano joined Pachuca’s youth academy as a brash, undersized forward who would move heaven and earth for a goal. Glory with the Mexican national team was always the dream, but his legacy began with his penchant for pranking his academy teammates. Small in stature and sporting spiky hair, Lozano says he used to hide from his Pachuca peers and jump out to scare them, which led them to call him Chucky, like the red-headed doll from the Child’s Play horror films.

A decade later, fans from Russia to Oaxaca were chanting the moniker. “Two teammates asked if it was O.K. if they started calling me that and from there, everyone was calling me Chucky. Now, everyone just knows me by Chucky,” he says.

One year after that iconic World Cup memory, Lozano made the jump to a top-five league, leaving Dutch giant PSV Eindhoven for Serie A’s Napoli. In Italy, Lozano has made history as the first Mexican international to play 100 games in Serie A as well as the first to score in the league. He now has 30 career goals for Napoli.

Now in Lozano’s fourth season with the club, Napoli is the favorite to win its first Serie A title since 1989-90, when Diego Maradona powered the side. Napoli, undefeated in the league, enters the World Cup break with an eight-point lead, which could make this year quite a memorable one for Lozano.

“It’s a really exciting moment for us in Serie A and also with the Champions League,” Lozano says. “There’s still a lot of road left. … But I can only hope that there are big things possible.”

Lozano, now 27 and in his prime, is a mix of Mexico's brightest star (16 goals and 11 assists in 60 appearances) and future leader (teammates Memo Ochoa and Andrés Guardado are on their fifth World Cup team, dating back to 2006). And he’s ready to turn the joy from his first World Cup into a drive to succeed in his second.

“I feel older, more mature. I feel it both in terms of football and personally,” Lozano says. “I want to enjoy it all, experience [the World Cup] to the fullest because the experience that I had in Russia was something amazing. Hopefully we can repeat something similar, if not something better.”

That “something better” is the elusive “Quinto Partido” (Spanish for fifth game). Starting with 1994, Mexico has advanced from the group stage in seven straight World Cups only to be eliminated in the round of 16, or just short of the fifth game. El Tri has only played in the Quinto Partido once, when it hosted the tournament in 1986, and that legacy has hung over the team at every World Cup since.

Some call it a curse; others, like former Mexico captain Claudio Suárez, simply refer to it as a series of unfortunate events. What’s clear is that the round of 16 has not been kind to Mexico. In 1994, El Tri were eliminated by Bulgaria on penalties; in ‘98, they blew a 1–0 lead against Germany with 15 minutes left. In 2006, they lost to Argentina in extra time and, in ‘14, Mexico was sent home after a controversial stoppage-time penalty given to the Netherlands.

Mexico’s Chucky Lozano celebrates his goal vs. Germany in 2018

Lozano and Guardado celebrate Chucky’s goal vs. Germany in the 2018 World Cup.

But Suárez, who was Mexico’s all-time appearances leader with 177 caps until Guardado broke his record last week, said it’s the pressure forged by the coveted Quinto Partido that wreaks havoc.

“You have to do everything you can to not let that pressure get into your head,” says Suárez, who will be covering the tournament as a commentator for Fox Deportes. “We all know who we are representing: 130 million Mexicans are relying on you, watching these games. It’s emotional, it’s challenging. But you have to channel this pressure to something positive, to motivate yourself.”

Lozano, meanwhile, said he prefers not to give any life to the Quinto Partido mystique: “We all want to make it [to the Quinto Partido] but we have to remain focused on the first game. And from there we can get going.”

In Qatar, the quest for the Quinto Partido runs through a difficult group that features Poland, Lionel Messi’s Argentina (Lozano bites his lip and smiles in anticipation when asked about Messi) and Saudi Arabia. “There are big teams, tough teams, so it motivates me a lot,” Lozano says. “I like those challenges, I want to enjoy it.”

And if Mexico emerges from the group-stage gauntlet, it will likely meet defending World Cup champion France or Euro 2020 semifinalist Denmark. As expected, the road to the Quinto Partido will never be easy.

“In reality, it’s going to be complicated to arrive at the Quinto Partido,” Suárez says. “But soccer can give the best surprises.”

Complicated is also a good way to describe the last few years under manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino. The former Barcelona and Argentina coach is the longest-serving Mexico manager in 15 years, but El Tri has floundered in the last 18 months. A rocky finish to the World Cup qualifying campaign followed two massive losses to the U.S. in the Nations League final and Gold Cup final in the summer of 2021. And now, Mexico comes into Qatar with only eight wins from its last 21 games dating back to last October.

Chants of “Fuera Tata” (Tata out) have serenaded El Tri wherever they go, and Martino reportedly offered his resignation in July before being convinced to stay on through the World Cup.

Suárez, who has a lasting nickname of his own in El Emperador (The Emperor), said the same fervor that gripped Mexico and made the earth shake in 2018 can often weigh heavy on Mexico on the biggest stage. It’s all part of the pressure cooker that is the culture surrounding El Tri.

“The World Cup is an obsession for Mexicans,” Suárez says. “When the World Cup comes around, lots of Mexicans who don’t really follow soccer come in with the expectation: “We are going to be champions of the world!” They want to win every single game. It’s great to have that positive mindset, but [for the team] it’s a lot of work.”

Lozano, by now, will be used to the pressure. Since the earthquake, he’s become the face of El Tri as well as the most expensive Mexican transfer ever when he completed the move to Napoli for a reported $46 million fee. In Qatar, all eyes will be on Lozano as Mexico’s top attacking option with forward Raùl Jiménez hobbled, Jesús “Tecatito” Corona out with injury, all-time leading scorer Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez exiled from Martino’s squad and rising talents Santi Giménez and Diego Lainez excluded as well.

But he has also struggled with untimely injuries since Russia. Lozano, who has yet to win a trophy with the senior Mexico team, missed out on Mexico’s triumph at 2019 Gold Cup after tearing his MCL in the penultimate game of the Dutch season. In the 2021 Gold Cup, Lozano’s eye—in his words—“exploded” in a gruesome collision with Trinidad and Tobago’s goalkeeper in Mexico’s tournament opener. Lozano said he feared for his life as he was stretchered off and fitted with a neck brace, and the Mexican star missed the next month recovering.

Mexico star Hirving Lozano leads El Tri at the World Cup

Lozano was a breakout star in 2018 and will be looked upon to lead Mexico in Qatar.

All of that missed time during big tournaments for Mexico made Lozano double his offseason preparation over the summer ahead of arguably the biggest year of his career with Napoli and the World Cup.

“Luckily I’ve put injuries behind me and [Napoli] has given me the confidence to play well,” Lozano says. “I feel great, and it’s important to go into the World Cup at your best.”

Along with wearing Mexico’s iconic green shirts, Lozano will also have his sights set on a taste of home. While Argentina and Uruguay are bringing roughly 4,000 pounds of beef to Qatar for their traditional asados at team meals, Lozano has delivery plans of his own: His family will be filling suitcases with Mexican products and ingredients that he can’t get in Europe.

“In Naples it’s really, really difficult to find Mexican food or to find a Mexican restaurant,” Lozano says. “It’s a real struggle. Every time we go back to Mexico we come back with a luggage filled with things from back home because we can’t get anything here. We’ll fill up everyone’s bags, the in-laws, friends. Just to tide us over in Italy.”

And if all goes well, he’ll have more than just food to pack in his suitcase for Italy. And if not, maybe he could at least help send the legend of the Quinto Partido packing.

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