It is all in your mind. There is no curse, no pattern, no secret thread tying generations of the Mexico national team at the World Cup together. El Tri have only arrived to the elusive ‘quinto partido’ when hosting the tournament, but there is no secret barrier blocking Mexico from reaching a fifth game at the World Cup.
At least, that is what they want you to believe. It is what they want to believe themselves. This year will be different.
Since qualifying for Russia, Mexico players have made it clear their goal is not to get to a fifth World Cup game for the first time on foreign soil. It is to go beyond.
Forward Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez: "I want to win the World Cup, and that is the only thing in my mind."
Midfielder Andres Guardado: "It is what I dream of most - going to my fourth World Cup and be able to not just get to this ‘quinto partido’ but to be able to go farther."
Captain Rafa Marquez at a ceremony in June: "Do not have any doubt that this team is not thinking about the ‘quinto partido’ but rather in being champions. That is what motivates us.”
Mexico cannot be the champion of the world without finally reaching the fifth game. History says that will not be easy.
A frustrating past
The players on the field in 1994 did not know they were starting an unwanted trend. They were focusing on restoring honor to Mexican football. An age manipulation scandal in a 1988 U-20 tournament led FIFA to ban all teams for two years. The ban forced the senior team to miss out on Italy 1990.
Not only was the group led by Alberto Garcia Aspe, Jorge Campos and Claudio Suarez the first in a string of six teams to go out in the round of 16, they were the first of many to narrowly miss the quarterfinals.
Garcia Aspe scored from the spot in regulation against Bulgaria to draw level after Hristo Stoichkov’s early opener. When he stepped up to take the first kick for Mexico in the shootout, though, he sent his shot over Borislav Mihaylov’s goal. Campos saved the eastern Europeans’ first effort, but Mihaylov matched the feat on the next two Mexico shots.
Bulgaria’s Cinderella run continued. Campos remained on the ground, stretched out where he landed after an unsuccessful dive to stop Yordan Letchkov’s deciding kick from the spot. Garcia Aspe covered his face with his hands.
Four years later, El Tri had things under control. Luis “El Matador” Hernandez had them up on Germany in Montpellier, and the quarterfinals were again in reach. With 15 minutes to go, Raul Lara failed to clear a cross that hit his legs and Jurgen Klinsmann snapped up a goal. Germany kept pounding in crosses and Oliver Bierhoff’s winner soon followed.
It looked like everything would change in 2002. The opponent? The United States. The same team Mexico had defeated a year earlier in the Estadio Azteca. Easy. Except the U.S. had topped Mexico in qualification as well, winning 2-0 at home. That is the result that was replicated. Brian McBride put the Americans up early and Landon Donovan danced past the Mexican back line to add an insurance goal and kick off more than a decade of ‘dos a cero’ chants from U.S. fans.
The World Cup 2006 is a particularly painful memory for Mexicans. Facing Argentina, El Tri jumped out in front in the sixth minute thanks to a Rafa Marquez finish. But just four minutes later, an Argentina free kick ended up in the back of the net. It remains credited to Hernan Crespo, though Mexico forward Jared Borgetti may have gotten the last touch as he was trying to defend the set piece. Again, El Tri headed for extra time in its quest for the fifth game. That quest ended with Maxi Rodriguez’s stunning goal of the tournament, which he chested to himself and volleyed in from the corner of the box.
It was Argentina again in 2010, and this time the injustice was an offside goal scored by Carlos Tevez for an opener that was allowed to stand. After that, Mexico did not have much of a chance. The South Americans scored twice more before Chicharito’s second-half consolation had the team exiting South Africa with some pride in tact.
Most recently, it was the penalty call that vexed fans throughout the Americas. Arjen Robben earned the Netherlands a penalty late in a match tied 1-1. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar converted in stoppage time to send the Dutch through and once again end Mexico’s World Cup run after four matches. Stylized drawings of Robben's dramatic fall along with #NoEraPenal stickers and merchandise still adorn many Mexican cities.
How has this happened so many times? For one, it gets a lot harder in the knockout rounds.
“The reality is when you go beyond the group stage you are going to face the better teams, and the challenge is to attack those types of teams the same way we play against smaller teams,” Juan Carlos Osorio told Goal.
"The players we have now believe we can play against top teams because we have had very good games against Uruguay, Portugal, Belgium, Poland and Germany.
"The teams we have played in the last year or so that have really stretched us to compete at that level.”
Former Mexico Goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez says past teams have also been able to compete but have not focused enough, switching off in critical moments that decided games in a tournament where one small moment can make all the difference.
“I think part of it is a lack of concentration. Maybe important players in the team lost their concentration. I say that because in France in 1998 we were winning 1-0 against Germany and how did the Germans score two goals? Lapses of concentration,” Sanchez told Goal. “After that, I remember the World Cup in Germany 2006, we had Argentina and suddenly we scored an own goal and after that the best goal in the World Cup from Maxi Rodriguez.
“So, these are details that can bring you down and there are moments where you do not follow your tactical concepts and lose concentration. There also are things like the famous ‘No era penal, right? Beyond that, the mentality, it is about concentration in the Mexican team. I think now that is all behind and things are going to be different because human beings learn from situations over time.”
Sanchez should know. He was on the field in 2006 and in the locker room for the previous two exits. If he is right, that it is all about concentration, then it truly could be mental.
So how can Mexico go about changing this time around. How can Osorio’s group go about rewriting history and starting a new trend? It is all in their heads.
The mental game
Imanol Ibarrondo is a smiling Spaniard who cites reading as one of his biggest hobbies. While even he admits he had limited personal sporting success (he only played professionally with Rayo Vallecano), he has helped the Spanish Olympic team, Basque sports teams and now the Mexican national team reach their maximum potential from a mental standpoint.
He is not a psychologist, but has techniques that help athletes get in the best place to succeed on the training ground, in the gym and away from the field. It is not the first time Mexico has brought in someone to act as a mental coach. Ricardo La Volpe hired on help in 2006, only for El Tri to fall short to that Rodriguez goal. This, however, may be the tournament where most players feel connected to a figure like Ibarrondo.
He has won their confidence over slowly since beginning to work with the team after a demoralizing 7-0 defeat to Chile in the Copa America Centenario.
“At first, I was mostly doing work with the group, and I came into the group at one of the most difficult times, after the famous 7-0 where there was a little more of a lack of confidence,” he said at Mexico’s media day prior to a friendly against Wales. “So, I did more group work to start to see what the best way was to lift players’ confidence, so I could get to know them better, to generate more confidence than there was before and from there working more one-on-one.”
What gets discussed in those conversations he has with players both based in Europe - where this Mexico squad has a dozen players playing - and in North America is private. One thing that does not come up is the "quinto partido".
“I do not hear anything about this ‘problem,’” he said. “Nobody talks about the fifth game as this unquestionable thing. I think this is a very mature, very competent, very talented group. You have players going to Europe and going to places where they have to learn the language, adapt to the team and have a really strong mentality. I think these players have that.
“The fifth game is not any type of barrier. They have the goal to write their own story. It is a really united group, connected, they feel strong, they feel good when they are together and I think that is incredible. That is what you need in the World Cup.”
It is something he has been repeating lately, fielding many of the same questions both at the media day and in later interviews.
“Really, it is like I said,” he tells Goal in a brief chat at the Rose Bowl. “It is not about thinking about the fifth game. It is about thinking about the first game.”
Now that Mexico is in the fifth game, though, the players’ mentality must be right, especially after a tough loss to Sweden to close out the group stage.
Not all players choose to work with Ibarrondo, and while Osorio said he is fine with players making that choice he also can be a helpful resource for players who are interested.
“All I wanted was to cover all the areas. We brought in a chiropractor and some players use him and some players do not use him. It is the same with the mental coach,” Osorio said. “Some players talk to him, some of the other players do not. I think both of them are doing a good job, but it is not something we force the players to do. But I do emphasize and do point out that both men are very helpful in their areas and we should try to use them as much as they can.”
Even if players are not talking about the "quinto partido" and Mexico’s struggles getting there in the past, though, the history could still be a factor, according to Dr. Martha Heredia.
Besides practicing as a sports psychologist, Heredia authored the paper “La Psicologia Deportiva y El Futbol” (Sport Psychology and Soccer) and worked as Mexican university UNAM’s coordinator for coordinator for adapted sport.
There may need to be a new approach for Mexico to break through, she says, with sports psychology a more common field in other countries than it is in Mexico.
“A lot of times they stick to, 'Motivation is important, have a lot of desire and give your soul, have personality and a whole series of cliches they have'," she told Goal.
Changing things up, though, and delving into psychology techniques that help a player with his mental health could lead to a player being able to better cope with the expectations the fan base has for him.
“Lately athletes and young people in Mexico have broken through in several sports. They have dispatched with the idea that the Mexican is inferior and cannot,” she said, citing diverse examples including Maria Espinoza’s Olympic taekwondo success. “So from there what can you see? You would have to see a good connection in the group. Because, yes, these predictions that, ‘They will not go through! They will not go through’ to the fifth game really is a lot of pressure.”
Changing the story
That pressure can land heavily on the shoulders of a 20-year-old guy who is still finding his footing as a professional. Edson Alvarez is talented, but he was not a regular starter at Club America in the past tournament, coming in when there were injuries or suspensions. Yet, there he is on the roster, his versatility earning him a place on the squad. He started against Korea and Sweden, but after an own goal in the final group game, he had to be comforted by his teammates as he left the field.
Alvarez said it is true that there is no locker room chatter about the "quinto partido", Alvarez was born after the 1994 tournament and the first tournament he is old enough to remember is the 2006 exit. Other players do not have to bring it up. He has heard enough about the "quinto partido" - and the press ask plenty of questions about it as well.
“We are going to go game by game, step by step. we cannot get ahead of ourselves,” he said. “The group is calm, we are solid. We can take this step of reaching the fifth game and maybe even get to the final.”
He has been listening to the team leaders, to Marquez, Chicharito and Guardado, who are all about setting sights on the ultimate goal, not the one on the way there. Yet, it is the mark that looms over Mexico and the thin line of success or failure there is for Osorio’s team. Alvarez may get another chance at making history and finally taking Mexico past the fifth match. Marquez will not - and neither will Osorio.
With a match against title favorite Brazil making or breaking El Tri’s success at this World Cup, the task at hand may be the hardest yet. Hector Moreno is suspended. Diego Reyes and Nestor Araujo didn’t make it to the tournament because of injuries. Osorio will have to dig deep into his squad to get an upset against the South Americans.
Maybe that would make it all the more impressive if Mexico is able to make it out and prove it really was all in our minds, that Mexico’s group stage magic and round of 16 fizzles were nothing more than coincidence. Failure will result in more believers added to the numbers that the curse is real, that it goes beyond Mexico not being in the right frame of mind to get to the "quinto partido", but that something else is at play.
It could be an even harsher reality, one Mexico has tried to disprove with its brave showings in previous tournaments. It could be that they are simply not good enough.
“I do not think it is a psychological issue. I just think it is reality. They have gone as far as they could have gone,” Osorio said. “Although there are always arguments after the fact that you could tie or win the next game. The last World Cup was that famous penalty, Rafa Marquez against Arjen Robben.
“There is still a game to be played, and they did not score enough goals to pass to the next round and that is what we will try to do. We will try to be more offensive-minded and more driven towards winning games rather than just being happy to be there and trying to not get embarrassed or playing not to lose.”