Mexican soccer fans experienced a gamut of emotions during the team’s third and final group game at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
The upshot of a disappointing 0-3 defeat to Sweden Wednesday morning was that, fortunately, Mexico still managed to qualify for the round of 16, where they will face the might of Brazil.
For that, El Tri – the Mexican team’s nickname – have to thank the players of South Korea, who sensationally defeated Germany 2-0 to send the 2014 champions crashing from the tournament.
Qualification appeared in the bag when Mexico defeated South Korea 2-1 last Saturday morning to a record two wins out of two, following the unexpected victory over Germany in the opening game. In the day’s later game, Germany and Sweden were level at 1-1 as the game entered its final minute. But a last-gasp free kick gave Germany an undeserved victory and denied Mexico its moment of glory.
Mexico, however, only needed to tie with Sweden in Ekaterinburg on Wednesday to ensure qualification in first place in the group. But the Scandinavians had done their homework and presented Mexico with a much stronger challenge than Germany and South Korea. Without rotating any players from the first two games, Mexico found it difficult to cope with Sweden’s physical, direct approach, although they managed to keep the score 0-0 in the first half.
The Swedes dominated the second half, running in three goals and causing the thousands of nervous Mexican fans in the stadium to turn their attentions to their cellphones and Germany’s game with South Korea.
With that game scoreless, Mexico still qualified in second place. And as Germany threw caution to the wind in search of a goal, the Koreans took advantage with two added-time breakaway goals.
“Korea, Korea,” chanted Mexican fans, not only in Russia, but also in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Los Angeles and other spots around the globe where paisanos had gathered to watch the game.
Koreans in Mexico City were hoisted on the shoulders of delirious fans, and a group gathered outside the Korean embassy in the capital. The Korean ambassador stepped outside, and was greeted as a hero, sampling tequila shots supplied by grateful fans.
While the Mexican players were obviously relieved at qualification, they did not celebrate on the field. It was a bitter-sweet moment after such a disappointing performance. Coach Juan Carlos Osorio later accepted that he should have rested a few tired legs from the first two games and played a different formation.
This is the seventh consecutive time Mexico have reached the second round of a World Cup. But Monday’s round of 16 game against Brazil will test El Tri to the maximum. With Germany on their way home, Brazil are the competition’s new favorites.
Could Mexico now do something that few other nations have ever achieved? That is, defeat the world’s two most successful soccer nations in the same tournament. Much improvement will be needed from this week’s showing with Sweden if that is to happen.
Mexico play Brazil, Monday, July 2, 9 a.m. in Samara. Available on all Mexican free-to-air channels, ESPN and Fox Sports.