This appears in philstar.com
A brutal and cruel fate for El Tri
by rick olivares pic by eduardo verdugo/AP
When Javier Hernandez returned to Mexico after a year with Manchester United, there was a billboard placed in and around the country that read, “Leave a hero. Come back a legend.”
It doesn’t only apply to Hernandez, nicknamed “Chicharito” or “Little Pea” by his countrymen, as it does to El Tri, as Mexico’s national team is fondly called. After all, they won the Olympic Gold Medal.
In three stellar Group A matches in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, El Tri was poised not just for legendary status – more so after taking a point from Brazil for the first time in 29 matches in a scoreless draw – but for greater glory.
Then came the shocking and cruel end to their storybook run as the Netherlands scored two goals in the final eight minutes (including stoppage time) to advance to the round of eight. And for the sixth time in Mexico’s World Cup history, El Tri has failed to advance to the quarterfinals.
And in a cruel case of symmetry, Mexico’s World Cup campaign mirrors their start of their qualification campaign.
After topping the third round of CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Football Associations) with a 6-0-0 record, things fell apart badly.
They fell to 2-5-3. They drew their first three matches they defeated Jamaica, 1-nil! One-nil!
Then a 2-1 loss at their home pitch of Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, saw the end of Jose Manuel dela Torre’s reign.
By the time they faced the USA at the Colombus Crew Stadium in Ohio, Luis Fernando Tena was in charge. But a 2-nil loss with goals from Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan saw him sacked after only one match (although he presided over their Olympic Gold Medal triumph in London. With an air of desperation as Mexico fell to fourth in the standings, Victor Vucetich, one of the most decorated managers in Mexican football was called upon to resurrect the country’s sagging World Cup fortunes.
It seemed that Vucetich, who was called out of retirement was the answer as Mexico arrested their skid with a 2-1 win with the game winner coming at the 85th minute courtesy of a Raul Jimenez strike.
But the reverie didn’t last as a surging Costa Rica humbled Mexico a second time with a similar 2-1 margin of victory. Vucetich was gone and Mexico’s Football Federation asked if their biggest local side, Club America, to manage the team.
In the two-legged qualification match between Mexico and New Zealand, El Tri, obviously much more skilled, crushed the Kiwis, 9-3, to book their World Cup ticket to Brazil.
In that win over New Zealand, Herrera won the hearts of his countrymen by selecting a side that was completely composed of players plying their trade in the La Liga Mexico. Because of the success of Mexican football, players now going abroad, especially to Europe are seen as traitors.
In a tournament of this magnitude, Herrera couldn’t simply take the chance. He lined up Villareal’s Dos Santos and his brother Jonathan who suits up for Barcelona as well as MUFC’s Hernandez. The obvious absence was Carlos Vela, the striker for Real Sociedad who is regarded as Mexico’s best footballer but has fallen out with the powers that govern national football.
Nevertheless, in a move similar (in some ways) to the exclusion of Landon Donovan for the United States team, Mexico was moving forward.
Once in Brazil, they flourished.
In their first ever Group A match against Cameroon, forward Giovani Dos Santos saw two goals disallowed for offside despite the first strike clearly on side.
However, Dos Santos kept at it and a second half shot that was batted away by Cameroonian keeper Charles Itandje, rebounded towards striker Oribe Peralta who struck home for the 1-nil win.
Against Brazil that owned a collective 38-0 record against Mexico, El Tri were outstanding against the host squad but they were unable to get any calls. They had to rely on the superb goalkeeping of Guillermo Ochoa to fend off four strong chances by the Selecao to take a point in a scoreless draw.
In their third group match, Mexico and Croatia battled to a standstill until the 70th minute when a Rafael Marquez header broke the stubborn defense of the Croats. Needing a win to advance, Croatia committed more men to the attack and they paid for it when Mexico scored two more goals. An Ivan Perisic goal with three minutes to play was a consolation as El Tri advanced with a 3-1 win.
Miguel Herrera’s men tied Brazil with a 2-1-0 record but were seeded second due to goal difference. But it didn’t matter. For a team that didn’t do too well in their own qualifiers in addition to undergoing a last minute managerial change, they had done better than anyone expected. In fact, they looked better with every match they played.
Against the Netherlands in the Round of 16, they obviously handled the humidity much better than the Dutch did who wilted in the heat. In the first half, while they repeatedly broke down the Dutch defense, they were unable to beat keeper Jasper Cilissen.
Poor defensive coverage allowed Dos Santos to finally score in the tournament but mysteriously, the Mexicans’ play dropped. Whether by design to hold back coupled by the Dutch playing with a greater sense of urgency, they were on their heels as Holland won corner after corner with Arjen Robben slicing through the defense like a hot knife through butter.
The Netherlands scored two goals in the last eight minutes including a stoppage time penalty controversially won by Robben to send Mexico home.
The animated Herrera who had become a popular figure for his animated displays on the sideline could not hold back his anger and disappointment. He cited FIFA’s decision to send a European referee for the match. He pointed out that an official from a different continent should officiate in order to preserve neutrality.
In truth, his squad also sat back rather than attack. His subbing out of Dos Santos for Javier Aquino didn’t help. If El Tri gave the Dutch a lot of trouble on their left flank, Holland coach Louis Van Gaal returned the favor as they racked up a lot of blazing runs from that side.
During Mexico’s qualification phase, their most painful loss was their 2-1 defeat to Costa Rica at Azteca Stadium. Their beloved Chicharito had a chance to send Mexico ahead when he found himself with nothing more than an empty net to slot the ball in the 17th minute of the match. However, he bungled his touch and sent the ball to Peralta who was called for offside.
But that is all forgotten now. They’ll remember Fortaleza where Mexican hearts were broken like never before. The Wesley Sneijder hammer strike in the 88th minute (and the Dutch midfielder was mostly a woeful sight all match long) and Arjen Robben dropping inside the box from a foul by their captain Rafael Marquez.
It is a brutal and cruel way to go out especially for a side that played so well.
El Tri left Mexico with a lot of hope. They’ll come home as heroes but somehow, I don’t think there’ll be any words to assuage the heartbreak.