FORTALEZA, Brazil – To walk down Avenida Alberto Craveiro on Tuesday afternoon without wearing this country’s omnipresent bright yellow T-shirt was like running the gauntlet naked, deserving of whatever harm came your way.
Military officials shut down traffic on the long road that snakes up to Arena Castelão outside of downtown, and for good reason. After a win in their opening World Cup match last week in São Paulo, the Seleção of Brazil were here on the Northeast coast for their second game in Group A and primed to seal their ticket to the knockout round with one match left remaining.
Anyone not on board with that plan took their lumps. Brazil fans lined Avenida Alberto Craveiro and chirped incessantly for more than a mile, and those who wore the green or red colors of Mexico were on their own to get through safely.
Those that made it by, however, got their reward. Armed with inarguably the best goalkeeping performance so far in this World Cup and more mettle in 90 minutes than they showed during nine months combined of shaky qualifying games to get here, Mexico posted a 0-0 draw that has them poised to reach the knockout stage.
With four points in the bank following Tuesday’s draw and a sure-footed opening win over Cameroon last week in Natal, El Tri won’t need much to get through. A win or a draw against Croatia in Recife on June 23 will do the trick, an improbable passage for a team that by all accounts never deserved to be here in the first place.
But here they are, and they have Guillermo “Memo" Ochoa to thank. The mop-topped goalkeeper who was recently released by his French club team was otherworldly in front of more than 38,000 fans on Tuesday, chosen by Miguel Herrera because, in the head coach’s words, he was calmer than the other goalkeepers on the Mexico roster.
It took nerves of steel to do what Ochoa did. Not only did he deny Brazilian phenom and opening match hero Neymar on two separate occasions, but each one is a candidate for the best save in Brazil so far.
The frontrunner is his first effort, a one-handed Superman-like lunge that left Neymar dumbfounded for the first time on his home turf. The Brazilian playmaker leapt over Mexican defender Rafa Márquez and nodded down a Dani Alves cross that was destined for the corner before Ochoa parried it away with his right hand, holding Mexico level as Brazil took control of the match early.
Ochoa returned with an instinct save on Brazilian midfielder Paulinho just before the first half closed, and followed that up with two more plays in the second half that sealed Mexico’s result.
Neymar had his chance in the 69th minute when he chested a cross down to his left foot, but it caromed off Ochoa’s underarm from point blank range and skipped away.
With four minutes left, it was another reaction stab, Ochoa’s right hand somehow able to punch away a booming header from Alves from five yards out. When the day was over, Ochoa finished with six saves, none for the weak of heart.
Perhaps just as impressive was how El Tri endured wave after wave of Brazilian pressure, not unlike the way the United States white-knuckled a win over Ghana on Monday night in Natal. Each CONCACAF team took a pounding and could have folded at any moment, but they somehow stayed afloat long enough to live another day.
Mexico had their moments of pressure, too – most notably early in the second half when José Juan Vásquez and Héctor Herrera each buzzed Brazilian 'keeper Júlio César with shots just over the bar – and their fans serenaded them again and again, “Sí se puede!”
But not last year, they couldn’t. It’s well known that Mexico back-doored their way into the World Cup last November via an intra-continental playoff win over New Zealand, a lifeboat after they nearly sunk themselves in CONCACAF qualifying and needed a US win over Panama to help push them through on the last day.
But the team that nearly drowned last summer looks different now. Either the surprisingly lovable Herrera has them focused and delivering on the promise El Tri fans expected last year, or there’s simply some unwritten rule about the World Cup that says Mexico simply won’t go without a fight.
The numbers bare it out. They’ve reached the knockout round in each of the past five tournaments and look well on their way to another shot following Tuesday’s draw, which could mean an enticing shot at the Netherlands, Chile or Spain in the next round.
But first, the road goes through Recife. And this time they won’t be lined with jeering fans, but more likely overrun by luchadores in red and green who know that this game in Fortaleza, against the hosts and World Cup favorites, was the day for heavy lifting in Group A.
And this time, Mexico didn’t buckle.