When the referee whistled at the end of Mexico’s last home game before the World Cup on Saturday night, a majority of the 80,000 fans at the Estadio Azteca joined their voices in one chant. But they weren’t celebrating their team, who had just defeated Scotland 1-0. They were chanting “Fuera Osorio” – a call for the sacking of their coach.
Although he has a better record than his five predecessors, and qualified Mexico to the World Cup in first place for the first time in 20 years, Juan Carlos Osorio, 56, is reviled by a large segment of Mexican fans and media. The hashtag #fueraosorio trends on social media every time El Tri plays, and the speculation about his replacement has been nonstop, fueled by the conviction that the team won’t even make it out of the group stage in Russia.
Coaching Mexico is to be in the electric chair from day 1: you know it’s going to end badly, but you don’t know how long it will take before the lever is pulled. Every decision is criticized by the press, every lineup questioned by fans. Winning games is not enough, the team has to play according to a set of expectations and aspirations that many times don’t correspond with reality.
And yet, Osorio, a Colombian coach who made a name for himself in the MLS, had one of the best honeymoons with the fans in recent history. The team was unbeaten through its first 10 games under Osorio, establishing a new record for the longest amount of time without receiving a goal (806 minutes), and looked like a strong contender for the Copa América Centenario, played two summers ago in the US.
But on one fateful June night at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, everything changed. Chile dismantled Mexico 7-0 in front of a sold-out crowd of mostly Mexican fans, the worst defeat El Tri had ever had in an international tournament. Mexico looked slow, overwhelmed and stunned on the pitch. The love affair was over and #fueraosorio was here to stay.
In November of 2016, Osorio regained some credit by breaking the “Columbus Curse,” defeating the US in that city for the first time since 1991 – but the criticism didn’t go away completely. Losing the semifinals of the Confederations Cup the next year to Germany was considered as a disappointment because the Germans, who went on to win the tournament, were playing with their “B” team.
A defeat against Jamaica in the semifinal of the Gold Cup a few weeks later was hailed as proof that Osorio was unfit for the job, even though he didn’t coach in that tournament because he was handed a six-game suspension from FIFA after an incident at the third-place game of the Confederations Cup.
The criticism against Osorio centers on his insistence on changing the starting 11 – a tactic he uses to rest players or adapt to the strengths of the opposite teams. His detractors say this hinders the ability of the team to develop a clear style and creates confusion among the players. In an interview with Sky Sports earlier this year, Osorio said he does use a base of 7 or 8 players but gives himself room to adapt. “I believe that depending on the opponent, on how they play and their style, it’s better to use some players instead of others. I’m also taking into consideration our way of playing and winning the game, for which there’s always an opportunity for three or four tactical alternatives,” he said.
Although his style doesn’t have many fans, Osorio has the unwavering support of his players. The group has defended their coach in interviews and said they are ready to make a good World Cup. Giovani dos Santos, the LA Galaxy striker who was heavily questioned in recent weeks for his lack of goals with the national team, scored the game winner against Scotland and ran to the sideline to celebrate with Osorio.
Advancing in the World Cup won’t be an easy task. Mexico will have to face the defending Champions, Germany, as well as Sweden and South Korea. Reaching the fabled “quinto partido,” as Mexicans refer to the quarterfinals, which have eluded them in the last six World Cups, will be a feat for a team that has been hindered by injuries, and whose starters don’t play on a top four team of the big European leagues.
But the World Cup is magical, and teams that don’t seem strong on paper can make deep runs. Just ask Costa Rica, who surprised everyone and reached the quarterfinals in Brazil four years ago. The lack of faith of their countrymen might end up taking some pressure off the Mexican team, allowing them to play more fluidly. But if they lose, the backlash will be swift and terrible, and Osorio will be out of a job before he leaves the stadium.
For the moment, Osorio is ignoring the critics. When asked what he thought of the “Fuera Osorio” chant at the Azteca, he replied: “Ah, I didn’t realize (that they were chanting)… I think the national team is able to have a great World Cup.”