A new documentary examines the links between soccer and Mexican life during El Tri's rise to international prominence.
Comprised entirely of archive footage, this 106-minute film will appeal to almost any soccer enthusiast but it may hold greater resonance for those who have spent their lives in masochistic relationships with perennial underdogs like Mexico.
Mexican director Olallo Rubio takes viewers on a chronological journey from El Tri’s first appearance in an international tournament (a chastening 7-1 loss to Spain in the Amsterdam 1928 Olympic Games) to the glorious triumph over Brazil in the final of the London 2012 Olympics.
Narrated by Rubio, the documentary is essentially a polished history lesson detailing El Tri’s gradual transformation from serial loser to one of the world’s top 16 sides. It also examines the impact of Mexico hosting two World Cups that were illuminated by legendary performances from Pele and Diego Maradona and are remembered among the best ever tournaments.
As in his last documentary – 2012’s Gimme the Power, which focused on the social and political impact of popular Mexican rap-rock band Molotov – Rubio constantly frames the subject matter of Ilusión Nacional within its wider sociopolitical context.
Successive Mexican presidents are shown doing their best to capitalize on El Tri’s modest successes and distract the nation from more pressing problems. But if Mexico’s politicians sought to utilize soccer as an opiate of the masses then Rubio shows that they did not always succeed.
When President Miguel de Madrid inaugurated the 1986 World Cup the audio engineers in the Estadio Azteca had to turn up his microphone in an attempt to drown out eight minutes of booing from the crowd. The people were furious at Madrid’s hapless response to the major earthquake that had devastated Mexico City the previous year and it would take more than a sporting event for them to forgive or forget.
Although some of the links that Rubio highlights between soccer and contemporary events seem somewhat tenuous, he does draw interesting parallels between the culture of corruption that has threatened both Mexico’s democracy and its place in world soccer.
The clearest example of this came in 1988, an annus horribilis in which Carlos Salinas de Gortari won Mexico’s presidential election through systematic voting fraud. That same year the Mexican Football Federation was found guilty of deliberately fielding overage players in a CONCACAF Under-20 tournament. As a result of this wrongdoing, FIFA banned El Tri from all international competition for two years, meaning Mexico was excluded from the Italy 1990 World Cup.
The movie’s more serious moments are balanced with many joyous episodes, including Maradona’s unforgettable goals against England in the Estadio Azteca, Hugo Sanchez mastering la Chilena (the bicycle kick) and Cuauhtemoc Blanco showcasing his signature move, the Cuauhtemiña, in the France 1998 World Cup.
The themes of hope and expectation betrayed by anticlimax and disappointment begin to feel all too recurrent as the film moves through recent campaigns that ended in humiliation against the USA heartbreak against Argentina. But the movie ends on a high note, with Mexico’s successes in two Under-17 World Cups leading up to a climatic Olympics montage played out to a dramatic score by Ennio Morricone.
Ilusión Nacional neither glorifies nor crucifies the Mexican national team, but it does celebrate the fans’ unshakeable faith in la selección and the firm collective identity that they derive from the beautiful game.
It is a shame that the film is only being given a limited release in fewer than 500 cinemas across Mexico. Perhaps El Tri Coach Miguel Herrera should arrange a screening for the squad before they leave for Brazil. Not only would it serve as inspiration, but also a healthy reminder of just what the team means to the Mexican people.