Most Mexicans went crazy with dread when the 2018 FIFA World Cup Draw placed El Tri in the latest Group of Death, with Germany, South Korea, and Sweden. But all I could think about was 1994.
I was 15 then, and it would be the first World Cup I paid attention to (I vaguely remembered the 1986 Mundial because it was held in Mexico, and I didn’t care about the 1990 Italy version because Mexico was disqualified.) As a child of Mexican immigrants from the state of Zacatecas, where baseball is king and soccer is usually a rumor, I remember having to learn about what most football fans take for granted: offside, The Golden Boot, Un golazo, and the Group of Death – the nickname given to each World Cup’s toughest foursome.
For the 1994 edition (held in the United States), Mexico also found itself in the tournament’s Group of Death – one so evenly matched that it remains the only group in the Mundial’s history where each team finished with the exact same record and goal difference. El Tri emerged on top, and seemed poised to reach the quarterfinals for the first time in a World Cup held outside of Mexico. All it had to do was beat a Bulgarian team that had never even made it into the knockout stage.
Instead, Mexico lost in a shootout to Bulgaria. That defeat inaugurated one of the most bizarre-yet-Mexican streaks in sports. El Tri is just one of three teams (along with Brazil and Germany) to make every World Cup knockout stage since 1994. But while the other two teams have made multiple finals and won Cups, Mexico hasn’t advanced to the quarterfinals in that span, oftentimes failing in crippling, infamous fashion.
Following is a history of each Mexican disappointment in the Round of 16 since 1994. Poor Mexico: So far from the Cup, so close to a heartbreaking exit.
After surviving the Group of Death (including a 1-1 draw with eventual finalist Italy), Mexico was the favorite to beat Bulgaria thanks to the neon outfit of goalkeeper Jorge Campos and an overwhelmingly pro-Tri crowd at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. Campos held the productive Bulgarian duo of Yordan Letchkov and Hristo Stoichkov to one goal during regular time, but a lack of scorers that year doomed El Tri during penalty kicks. Mexico’s first three attempts failed, while Campos saved only one as his squad lost 3-1.
Mexico had the same record as the Netherlands, but got second place in its group because an aging Campos allowed five goals, which nearly negated the great performance by Luis “El Matador” Hernández, who put up four goals in the tournament. He would also score in Mexico’s Round of 16 match against Germany. Although it lost 2-1, the Mexican team gave hope for the future with a strong match against a clearly superior German squad.
This time, El Tri won its group and got what every Mexican has dreamed of since 1848: The United States, on the battlefield again, this time in front of a worldwide audience and for the first time ever at the World Cup. Instead, Uncle Sam slammed El Tri 2-0, and the aftermath perpetuated two of the most infuriating trends in US-Mexico relations that decade: the fulfillment of their rivalry’s name as Dos a Cero and Landon Donovan.
There was no way Mexico would win its group because of Portugal’s dominance that year, which meant it had to face off against a strong Argentine team in the Round of 16. El Tri nevertheless matched well against los albicelestes, and regular time ended with the squads tied 1-1. But in the 98th minute…well, watch for yourself:
I remember this goal well. I was at an Argentine restaurant in Orange County, one of two Mexican fans in a packed house. When Maxi Rodriguez effortlessly fielded that crosser with his head, then set up his 25-yard goal with all the ease of a two-foot putt, the Argentines exploded with cheers and tears and conciliatory pats on the back to me and my friend. “Nos ganan a la próxima, che,” an older man said.
Mexico finished in second place again, which placed it in a match against a group leader for the second year in a row…and it was Argentina again. Los albicelestes slaughtered Mexico 3-1, although it shouldn’t have happened: Carlos Tevez’s first goal was clearly offside to everyone but the referees who allowed it.
The year of Memo Ochoa – whose magnificent play in the opening round inspired memes of him as everyone from Gandalf (“You shall not pass!”) to inanimate objects like walls. But even a hero like Ochoa couldn’t stop the opera star that was Arjen Robben, whose dive allowed the Netherlands to score a penalty kick against Ochoa in extra time. This, after Mexico led 1-0 until the 88th minute, because of course Mexico would lose in tragic fashion. #NoEraPenal
Mexico dominated CONCACAF this year, finishing in first place with six wins, three draws, and only one loss. And for its hard work, it gets to open against defending World Cup champion Germany, which finished undefeated in its UEFA group, with 43 goals scored for and only four scored against. El Tri probably won’t win the Group of Death, which means one of its most talented teams in decades will most likely finish in second place, at best. And if it does, it’ll face the winner of Group E, which’ll most likely be Brazil, the top-ranked team in the world. The alternative is hardly better, though: winning Group F would probably condemn it to face off against a Swiss squad that’s currently ranked No. 8 in the world. Suerte, chavos!