RECIFE, Brazil – By all accounts, Mexico’s road to the World Cup should have ended a long time ago, stuck in the CONCACAF muck outside San José, Costa Rica.
But El Tri’s 2-1 loss to Costa Rica last October – and the United States’ dramatic win over Panama that pushed Mexico out of the Hexagonal and eventually on to Brazil – was finally washed clean here on Monday night.
That’s what three goals and a shower of Brahma beer can do.
Mexico’s 3-1 win over Croatia in the teams’ do-or-die Group A finale at Arena Pernambucano wasn’t just cathartic. It was emphatic. Dogged by critics who insisted Mexico had somehow missed their golden generation’s chance at the World Cup ever since last year’s stagnant showing in CONCACAF, El Tri summoned their best stretch of play in the World Cup so far, exactly when it counted.
Three of the team’s iconic players scored in the span of 10 minutes in the second half. Reviled but relentless defender Rafa Márquez started it off with a goal off a Mexico corner kick midway through the second half and Andrés Guardado and Javier “Chicharito” Hernández added tallies before the blitz was through, leaving the largely pro-Mexican crowd of more than 41,000 fans to serenade their team with a rapturous version of “Celito Lindo.”
“Pretty little heaven,” they sang, “is well deserved.”
After finishing second to host nation Brazil in Group A, El Tri will now take on the Netherlands on June 29 in Fortaleza in the Round of 16.
“I don’t have any doubt that we can bring in more than 40,000 people in Fortaleza,” head coach Miguel Herrera said. “Our people are crazy. They want to be here, and they will be here … Our Mexican brothers and sisters sell whatever they can sell in order to come here. We will be the home team, I have no doubt about that.”
Added Croatian head coach Niko Kovac: “To have 35,000 or 40,000 fans in the stands … if they have so many fans in Fortaleza, they have a chance.”
They’ll also need another solid outing from Márquez, the man Herrera said he called first when he took over a desperate El Tri squad last October. Now 35 years old but as cagey and opportunistic as ever, Márquez has captained Mexico at four different World Cups, and he’s scored in three of them, thanks to a header in the 72nd minute that broke the game open before Guardado and Chicharito finished it off.
He also received a yellow card for scything down Croatian midfielder Ivan Perisic in the open field in the 38th minute, but it’s all in a day’s work for the man Herrera calls “The Boss.”
“We needed a leader who was concentrated and involved in the game, commanding, screaming and shouting when he needed to shout …” Herrera said. “I didn’t hesitate one minute after my talk with him to appoint him as captain and I did not have any doubt in saying he was No. 1 on the list of 23. And he’s living up to it.”
Márquez, meanwhile, insisted that despite all its difficulties getting to Brazil, the current Mexican team is the most cohesive of the four World Cup teams he’s played on, and that’s high praise.
The team was in complete disarray just last fall and yearning for leadership, but they’ve somehow posted an undefeated run in group play over the past two weeks, highlighted by a gutsy scoreless draw against Brazil in Fortaleza and Monday’s sure-footed win.
“In this era with Miguel, we’ve set our minds to achieve important things, and the important phrase within the team is to make history,” Márquez said. “The team is making a huge effort, and we hope to maintain the level that we’ve shown so far, and we’re very happy that we’re moving on, but we have a very difficult game ahead of us. “
A loss to the Netherlands, however, doesn’t appear to part of the conversation among the players or coaches on El Tri. They’re back in the knockout round for the sixth consecutive World Cup and don’t plan on reliving any harsh memories of the rough road that got them here.
“I don’t know if it’s the best Mexico team, but I like it, because it’s the Mexico I have with me today,” Herrera said. “They’re enjoying every single minute of it.”