To the several anointing Mexico as favorites to stand in the podium, a scoreless draw in the opener against South Korea was a somber debacle.
When your expectations are sky-high, there’s generally nowhere to go but down. Mexico’s scoreless draw with South Korea in its Olympic Games opener falls into that framework.
The result is genuinely not a bad one at all for El Tri, pretty clearly the inferior team on the day. With co-favorite Switzerland also playing to a surprise draw in the other group game, everything’s still to be played for in England.
Of course that’s not the way everyone will see it. Many will consider a draw with South Korea a failure for Luis Tena’s side.
The problem here is perspective.
It’s been hard to escape the feeling throughout the build up to these Games that Mexico may be a little overrated by some fans and media, and probably by the medal-hyping Mexican federation itself. That’s not because the team is not a good one; it’s because expectations of a medal have been heaped on the U-23s since the beginning of the cycle, without taking much into account on the field.
While the offense had been clicking on all cylinders in qualifying and at Toulon, the defense always looked vulnerable. Aside from a few extraordinary attacking pieces, the hard truth has always been that this team is pretty regular in several spots on the field.
Nevertheless, Mexico’s youth success in recent years and some marginally deceptive positive results for the U-23s meant plenty of people were painting the Olympic team as world beaters coming in.
Of course there was no real competition in CONCACAF, and the victory in Toulon probably didn’t help in terms of expectations, as it painted over some significant deficiencies. That triumph also seems to have caused some intransigency on Tena’s part as far as how he would use overage spots.
The recent warm-up matches, and most of all Thursday’s tepid performance against South Korea, affirm that Tena did himself no favors by selecting a somewhat tired looking, over-the-hill Carlos Salcido and an out-of-form Oribe Peralta - neither seems better right now than what El Tri already had at those spots.
So it was almost inevitable that Thursday, South Korea would bring Mexican hopes back into orbit. This is a very good South Korean team, with players spread throughout Europe - all in all, very similar in quality to El Tri.
With hopes dashed that the talent level of this U-23 team alone would lead to easy wins over everyone in England, it’s clearer Mexico will have to continue to work for all it can get against other emerging nations, like South Korea, just as intent on joining the world’s elite.
That such a reminder came in the opener of this tournament, with no more damage done than a couple points lost against potentially the best team in the group, is a blessing for the Olympic team.
Plenty of Olympic competition remains, and this Mexico team is still good enough to medal. Let’s not have hopes swing unreasonably too far to the negative side, either. To succeed, though, Tena will need to make some adjustments.
The first would be getting Gio Dos Santos onto the field. If he’s good enough to have starred for the full version of El Tri just a month ago, he’s good enough to play full time for the U-23s. The best solution is probably to use Gio as a forward and Marco Fabian as a false nine, in a bid to get the best talent on the field and spur the puzzlingly stagnant offense. El Tri will see much more of the ball against Gabon, and needs to create chances with its possession.
Behind Gio’s leadership, El Tri can still find its best form. South Korea was a bit of a wake up call, but it’s best for this to have happened early, and without an ego-deflating loss. Now, it’s down to business, against teams that - let’s admit it - will believe they match up with El Tri the same way Mexico would like to think it matches up the Spains and Brazils of the world.
Sometimes, taken the right way, a dose of reality can be a very good thing.