Here they are. Half bent and bloodied. But nonetheless standing among the 32 nations competing in the 2014 World Cup.
Not long ago the magnificence of El Tri was palpable and foreboding. They dispatched their opponents with unapologetic confidence and towered over their foes. Dominant. Uncompromising. Destined. No one could predict their stumble and fall during final qualifying for the quadrennial tournament in 2013.
Their rapid and ignominious decline was as unimaginable as it was perplexing. Drawing in cavernous Azteca stadium was seldom witnessed in years past but losing? Unheard of. Until Honduras defeated them 2-1.
By then the Mexican national team was a staggering, punch drunk shadow. For the first time in millions of lifetimes the possibility of El Tri not qualifying for La Copa was real. It would have been easier to imagine the Pope abdicating his papacy for a woman. But their demise was real and as qualifying continued Mexico’s imminent disqualification appeared to be a foregone conclusion.
In their region the top three teams are guaranteed passage to the world’s futbol championship. In decades past Mexico had become accustomed to occupying one of the top two tiers. But this time they were on the bottom looking up at the United States, Costa Rica and Honduras, clinging to rosary beads and praying. Hoping to advance to a playoff series against the All Whites of New Zealand.
The team that had showed promise in 2011 and 2012 flailed with ineptness and underperformance in 2013. In the end it wasn’t their talent and merit that kept their hopes alive. It was the United States. In a meaningless game against Panama, Mexico’s arch nemesis kept El Tri on life support by scoring a game winning goal over Panama, who also had been vying for a playoff spot.
Panama out, Mexico in. Alive for one more day. One more chance.
Mexico’s road to Brazil is littered with the bodies of three fired head coaches and shameful ties and embarrassing losses. But the hiring of their fourth coach, Miguel Herrera, and his use of a virtually brand new squad netted Mexico what they needed—two wins over New Zealand. And a berth in the World Cup.
So here they stand. Battered and bloody. But on their way to Brazil to face Cameroon, Croatia and the host country, Brazil. Two of those countries are ranked higher than Mexico (Brazil is ranked 10th in the world and Croatia 16th) who is considered the 20th best team on the planet. Only the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon are ranked outside the top 20, at 51st.
But as Mexico’s run to Brazil has shown fans and observers, anything can happen. The strong sometimes falter and what was once considered conventional wisdom can prove to be wishful thinking. What happens next remains to be seen. With Mexican and futbol, nothing is certain.