The July 1 elections in Mexico may be the most significant happening of the summer, but for pure emotion, many denizens will switch their attentions to a sporting event unfolding 6,700 miles to the east.
The World Soccer Cup (Mundial) arouses national passions like no other. Not only is the tournament a great excuse for Mexicans to party, it’s perhaps one of the few occasions when the class divide subdues and citizens seem united by a common purpose – willing on El Tri (as the national team is known because of the country’s three-colored flag) to glorious victory.
After a two-year qualification process, 32 nations made it to the Mundial, set for 12 cities in Russia from June 14 to July 15. While Mexico qualified with ease, the United States – present at the past six tournaments – failed to make the cut at the expense of regional rivals Costa Rica and Panama. Canada, in time-honored tradition, will also be absent.
Historically, Mexico has always underachieved at the World Cup, in spite of its massive, passionate fan base. Soccer is equally as popular here as in Brazil, but that Latin American nation has won the competition five times. Mexico has reached the quarter-final stage just twice – both when the competition was held on home soil. Playing abroad, El Tri has never advanced past the round of 16.
Advancement this time around will again be tough, especially as the team has hardly been in stellar form in their warm-up games. A 0-0 tie with Wales in Los Angeles and a 1-0 win over Scotland in their “despedida” game at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City last weekend failed to enthrall fans. The team was booed off the field after the latter game, with 80,000 fans calling for the head of the team’s Colombian coach, Juan Carlos Osorio.
A change of leader so close to a major tournament is almost unthinkable, but many fans fear the worst. Mexico’s opening Group F game on Sunday, June 17 (kick off 10 a.m.) in Moscow pits them against powerhouse Germany, the current holders of the trophy following their triumph in Brazil in 2014.
Two more winnable group games follow in quick succession, on Saturday, June 23 (10 a.m.) against South Korea in Rostov-on-Don and on Wednesday, June 27 (9 a.m.) against Sweden in Yekaterinburg.
Presuming they perform well in these two games and finish in second place in their group, Mexico would be paired with the winners of Group E in the round of 16 – in all probability Brazil. An uphill road, if ever there were one!
Rafael Marquez, the recently retired captain of local outfit Atlas, will captain the team, thus making his fifth appearance at a World Cup. Only two other players have ever achieved this feat. Whether Marquez will make the starting line up is unclear, as Osorio likes to tinker with his teams. Astonishingly, he has never used the same starting line up in any of the 47 games he has been in charge of the national team since his appointment in October, 2015.
Also included among Mexico’s 23 squad players on the plane to Russia is 30-year-old Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, the idolized Guadalajara local who has carved out a successful career in Europe. However, he lacks game time, having spent much of last season sitting on the substitutes’ bench at his English Premier League club, West Ham.
Nonetheless, experience counts for much in such a high-profile tournament as the World Cup. Just over half the Mexican squad now ply their trade in Europe, a factor that many experts believe will help hone their competitive edge.
Although the Mexican team has no standout player to compare with Argentina’s Leonel Messi or Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, knowledgable soccer brains say Mexico’s exciting 22-year-old striker Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, who plays for PSV Eindhoven (the Dutch champions) in the Netherlands, could be one of the tournament’s big surprises.
Given the time difference with Russia, all Mexico’s games will be shown in the morning hours. Expect restaurants to fill up for “breakfast specials” on the days when Mexico is playing. Victory would ensure plenty of time during the rest of the day for celebrating (Guadalajara’s Minerva Glorieta is a favored location) … and imbibing.
The tournament starts Thursday, June 14, 10 a.m. when hosts Russia play Saudi Arabia.
Soccer-mad English fans should note these times for England’s group games: Monday, June 18, 1 p.m. (vs. Tunisia); Sunday, June 24, 7 a.m. (vs. Panama); Thursday, June 28, 1 p.m. (vs. Belgium).
The final is on Sunday, July 15, 10 a.m.