The Joy and Sorrow of Mexican Soccer Fandom in Two Game-Changing Goals

Photo by AP

Soccer is rough on the soul. It makes your blood boil, it makes you cry tears of joy, and it makes your grandma yell obscenities you didn’t know were grammatically possible. It unites families as quickly as it divides them. Life becomes punctuated by little moments that stay with you, goals that were so absurd in their perfection that somebody had to have suffered for them. Inevitably, someone always does.

My life as a Mexican soccer fan can really be narrowed down to two specific moments – two goals, each a game-changer into the upper-left corner of the net, each painfully, laughably beautiful. One for Mexico, one against. One by Giovani Dos Santos, the other by Maxi Rodríguez.

For many fans of El Tri, this article might as well end here. They know the two goals. They understand. There is joy and there is sorrow and there’s no need to elaborate. That’s it.

Yes, there have been other big goals in recent Mexican soccer history: the Paul Aguilar volley against the US and the Robben penalty, for example. They were important. But they were different, not like the two goals at hand. Not for me, at least.

Mexico has the frustrating habit of being a team that always makes it past the group stage of major tournaments, but never further. Our first golden generation was going to change that. Mexico won the U-17 World Cup in 2005 with a team that included Carlos Vela and Giovani Dos Santos. They would quickly join one of Mexico’s best-ever World Cup squads: Andrés Guardado and Memo Ochoa, barely 20 years old; Rafa Márquez and Carlos Salcido in their primes; Jared Borgetti and Jesús Arellano, the veterans; and Maxi Rodríguez, who ruined everything.

I hate Maxi Rodríguez with all my heart, and then some. It’s almost a literary sort of hate, like a dark pit in my stomach. He was our dream-killer. I’m sure he’s a very nice man in real life, of course. But he ruined the summer of my 16th year on this earth and for that I can never forgive him.

Ninety-seven minutes into the second round game of the 2006 World Cup, when Mexico was finally playing as beautifully as fans believe they can, Argentina came on the counter attack. Juan Pablo Sorín lobbed a cross from left to right, landing just beyond the corner of the box. Rodríguez chested it up, and without even letting it bounce, thrashed it across the box into the upper left corner of the net. Oswaldo Sánchez never had a chance.

It was one of those goals that compels you to unplug your TV and put your head in your hands. You crack your fingers nervously because it was too pretty not to watch at least one more time.

I felt a little knot form in my stomach, and it would stay there for years. Even now it hurts to write about.

By June 2011, it was unfair to say whether Mexico and that budding golden generation was living up to its potential. For many, the World Cup exit had been a huge blow, a shadow cast over any achievements. Third place in Copa América 2007. Copa Oro champions in 2009. And still, I can’t tell you how often I heard things like, “If only we could play like that in the World Cup, maybe things would have been different!”

The Copa Oro final in 2011 was USA vs. Mexico at a sold out Rose Bowl. It’s difficult to say who had the home-field advantage. Seventy-six minutes in, Mexico had come out of a 0-2 hole to lead 3-2, but there were chances on either side. And then Giovani Dos Santos ended it.

He took a slotted pass from Gerardo Torrado, danced around a floundering Tim Howard, and chipped an agonizingly slow shot. It sailed over a few American players who could do nothing but watch as it dipped an inch below the post, showcasing an impossible level of precision. It was so absurd, so perfect, it was almost disrespectful, and American hopes evaporated immediately with it. The 14 remaining minutes didn’t even matter.

Watch the clip below and begin to understand its brilliance.

In talking to my brother about this article, his first question was, “Who’s the poor bastard who was on the post for Gio’s chip and couldn’t quite get there?” Eric Lichaj, I feel for you. Mexico had stormed back for the win, and soon there would be a palpable change in the way Mexican soccer seemed to perceive itself, like a veil had been lifted.

Mexico would go on to win the 2012 Olympic gold medal, its first ever, as well as the 2015 Gold Cup and CONCACAF Cup.

Again, it’s probably worth noting that Mexico barely made the 2014 World Cup. Whether the team that came out of that Copa Oro win fulfilled its potential is still up for debate. Maybe El Tri only exists in these heartache waves of boom and bust. Whatever it may be, the goal was a watershed moment. The showcase that was that game — and Gio’s devastating topper — helped change the direction of Mexican soccer. It brought fans back to a place of excitement, even confidence; this was the Tri we dreamed of watching.

With the Copa América coming this summer and the Confederations Cup not far behind, is it too much to ask for a reprise?