El Tri under pressure
The Mexican National team is in trouble. Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s team lost their last two qualifiers, in the United States and Canada, and fell from first to third in the CONCACAF qualifying final round. Although the ticket to Qatar does not appear to be in imminent danger yet, the defeats have plunged the team into a kind of mini-crisis both on and off the field.
The first loss, 2-0 against USA, was particularly painful. Not only because the Americans are Mexico’s arch-rivals, but also because it was the third consecutive defeat of the year – in the summer, they had lost 3-2 in the final of the CONCACAF Nations League and 1-0 in the final of the Gold Cup – which marks a reversal of a trend that, for the last decade, had notably favoured El Tri.
Furthermore, it was the first match in which Mexico had been completely outplayed by their rival. In the previous two, they had been the ones who carried the weight of the game, only to fall due to specific errors and setpieces. But in this case, after an even first half, the Americans
completely outplayed them in the second half, and ended up with a more than deserved victory.
The result was a blow to the fans, but it seemed to be to Tata Martino as well. Four days later, in the cold of Edmonton, fearful of the dynamism of Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, Mexico came out with an ultradefensive approach against Canada for the first time in their history.
The first half was a sordid affair, and when it looked like it would end 0-0, an unusual mistake by the ever-reliable Guillermo Ochoa allowed Cyle Larin to open the scoring for the Canadians. From then on, El Tri collapsed and Larin scored a second in the 52nd minute. It was not until the final stretch that Mexico woke up and laid siege to their rivals’ goal. Hector Herrera managed to reduce the arrears in the 90th minute, and Canadian goalkeeper Milan Borjan saved his side from an equaliser at the death to seal the shock 2-1 victory.
The two defeats left Mexico in third place in the group, two points below Canada, one below the United States and tied with Panama, who they remain ahead of on goal difference. CONCACAF only grants three direct tickets to Qatar 2022, with fourth place heading to the intercontinental play-offs.
Inside the bad moment, there is some positive news for El Tri. Tata Martino’s side have the easiest schedule of all the teams. Of their last six games, four will be at home at the Azteca Stadium, where Mexico have only lost two qualifying games in their history. Their two away games will be in Honduras, who are in last place in the table, and Jamaica, who have barely won a match in the competition.
Even if the situation were to become truly catastrophic and Mexico finished in fourth place, luck would have it that in the play-offs, the representative of CONCACAF will face the representative of Oceania, most likely New Zealand, who El Tri beat 9-2 on aggregate ahead of Brazil 2014.
Despite all this, it is difficult to feel optimistic about the future of the team. The matches against the United States and Canada revealed a slow and sluggish side, lacking in confidence and with few alternatives from the bench. In a revealing statistic, in the match played against the Stars and Stripes, the average age of the Aztec team was 28.9 years, while that of their opponents was 23.6.
Several of the leaders of El Tri do not seem to be at their best. Keeper Guillermo Ochoa, fundamental in the team’s performances in Brazil 2014 and Russia 2018, made the error that cost the defeat against Canada; Wolves’ Raul Jimenez was unable to generate a clear-cut chance in either of the two matches; Napoli’s Hirving Lozano didn’t come out for the second half of the match in Canada, while Hector Herrera and Jesus Corona paid for their lack of activity at Atletico Madrid and Porto respectively with disappointing performances.
Only Edson Alvarez, who has had
an extraordinary season at Ajax, was remotely close to his usual level, and even so he was not able to prevail against the speed and more physical style of the American and Canadian midfielders.
Despite this, the Mexico manager does not seem willing to try a changing of the guard, even if he has a talented generation of youngsters at his disposal who won the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics in August.
In addition, it must also be taken into account that Mexico will play their next two home games behind closed doors due to a FIFA ban, as a result of one of the most controversial issues in the country in recent years: the “p**o” cry.
Despite being used with other meanings on some occasions, the word is in general an insulting and derogatory term to refer to homosexuals. Since a pre-Olympic tournament in 2003, fans of the Mexican team have shouted the slur in the stands to pressure the away goalkeeper every time he goes to take a goal-kick.
Since then, it has become a bizarre tradition, repeated in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 World Cups. It was precisely from the tournament in Brazil, and the transmission of the cry worldwide, that FIFA decided to take action to eradicate it, and warned the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) that they should stop their fans from doing so.
The federation did not take the warning seriously and, in 2015, FIFA issued a fine for the repetition of the cry. The federation then appealed to CAS, arguing that the scream was a harmless Mexican custom, and that the word had more meanings than the homophobic insult. The appeal did not proceed, and in the face of the repeated shout, FIFA continued to fine the FMF, essentially after
Mexico will play their next two home games behind closed doors due to a FIFA ban, as a result of one of the most controversial issues in the country in recent years: the “p**o” cry
each match of the national team.
Among the press and fans, in principle, the ban by FIFA caused outrage. Little by little, however, the perception has been changing and there are now more and more voices, among journalists and fans, who are condemning the cry and asking for its eradication. The FMF, frightened by the possibility of playing without fans or even having points deducted in the qualifiers, changed their stance, and began campaigns to eradicate the scream, although so far it has always felt half-hearted, as if they believed they were being unjustly threatened.
The threats and fines, however, changed the nature of the cry. From then on, the fans, instead of doing it to pressure the rival goalkeeper, began to yell to pressure their own team, when they were not satisfied with their performance in the match.
As Mexico have not played well in the qualifying phase heading to Qatar 2022, the cry has been repeated in each match of the national team. FIFA finally followed through on their threats, suspending spectators for two matches (reduced to one on appeal), in June, and again in November.
Therefore, the next international window looks more complicated than it would seem for Mexico. First with a trip to Kingston, against a Jamaican side that already made life difficult for them at the Azteca Stadium before losing 2-1 in the last minute, and then without their fans in the two crucial games against Costa Rica and Panama in Mexico City.
Anything less than six points out of a possible nine would seriously complicate the ticket to Qatar for El Tri and seriously jeopardise the continuity of Tata Martino at the helm of the team. He maintains the full support of the federation, although he seems to have lost almost all the fans.
And to be under pressure in Mexico means that he’s in the hot seat for real, and the threat of being fired must be taken seriously. After all, he manages a trigger-happy country that has had nine different coaches since the last time one of them, Ricardo La Volpe, completed a full World Cup cycle, between 2002 and 2006.