Not long ago, June 23rd, to be exact, that loud alarms turned on in Mexico. Mexico's U-20, after two group stage matches against Greece and Paraguay, finished with two losses. The word that began to make its public appearance was that of "failure". How was it possible that a team that received a lot of support in its preparation for the World Cup not make it out of the group stage?
Sergio Almaguer's team achieved a 4-1 win against a Mali side that got two ties against Greece and Paraguay. Again, the word "failure" appeared on the horizon. Not only that but during the match, desperation broke loose as Mexico missed one chance after another. Goals were vital for Mexico to secure one of the four best third places out of six groups.
And yes, the daydreaming also occurred as more than one Mexico fan compared the goal desperation to the one that occurred in 2008 when Hugo Sánchez's Olympic team failed to qualify to the Beijing Olympics. Some fans even talked about how Mexico's forwards were possessed by Enrique Esqueda, Luis Ángel Landín, and Santiago Fernández's spirits.
The three Mexican forwards mentioned above have not been able to explode their potential since then (Fernández retired). Impeccable character was demonstrated from both the coaching staff and players. The task on hand asked for Mexico to erase past events and start all over, but knowingly that destiny not only depended on them, but on other teams. Almaguer left on the bench, the captain, Antonio Briseño, that formidable strong central defender who scored the first goal in that memorable Estadio Azteca game that gave Mexico its second U-17 title.
Against Greece there were plenty of scoring chances but the team was unable to convert, while the game against Paraguay saw a disintegrated team with no firm conviction to swim against the currents. Against Mali, Almaguer's boys achieve to actually score goals out of playmaking not out of a free kick coming off Jonathan Espericueta's left boot. And the conviction got reestablished.
Mexico's U-20 is up against one of Mexico football's biggest challenges in the last years. Playing against Spain in the Round of Sixteen permitted some Mexico journalists to express their opinion on Twitter. Two journalists said, "Why qualify to the Round of Sixteen if Spain will be the opponent," one was more direct and sentenced Mexico's exit. The journalist's comments are part of Mexico's football progression in international play. In other words, it is a loser mentality that Mexico has to bury, and big steps have been taken amongst the players - the U-17 World Cup in Mexico, the U-20 third place finish in Colombia, and the gold medal in London - are examples of that steady progression. The progression not only should occur amongst the players, but also amongst some journalists.
Spain is on top of the football world, but it is interesting to listen to the protagonists of the past, the superstars who were short from glory, and hear their interpretations of what is going on now with Vicente del Bosque's team and Julen Lopetegui's U-20 and U-21 teams. The seeds Spain planted not so long ago began in these youth tournaments, U-17 and U-20 World Cups. It was a U-20 World Cup that Iker Casillas and Xavi Hernández won before the EUROs and World Cup. Players like Andres Iniesta and Fernando Torres first conquered a EURO U-19 in 2002 before the EUROs and World Cup; it is all a long journey.
Mexico is following Spain's footsteps as best as it can. In Istanbul, Mexico has a great opportunity to show some progression, to defy all odds. There are enough facts to suggest that up to the Round of Sixteen, the best team has been Spain, finishing with 9 points in what was considered the group of death. Three wins against the United States, Ghana, and France, plus having amongst its ranks one of the top scorers in the tournament, Jesé, with five goals. Contrary to Spain's U-21, which won the recent European Championship in Israel, and La Roja that made the Confederations Cup final, Lopetegui's Spain continues to learn how to appropriate of the ball in the midfield. The masterminds on Spain's U-20 midfield need more years to fully conceptualize the skills that were well shown in the U-21 with Thiago Alcantará, Asier Illaramendi, Koke, and Isco. Lopetegui's U-20 is dangerous on vertical attack, with one or two passes, Gerard Deulofeu, FC Barcelona's only La Rojita representative, and Jesé are able to turn the chances into goals.
The margin of error for Mexico is zero, and that is complicated to perform after only snatching one win in the group stage. Mexico is up against a complicated challenge, but with the possibility of making a big statement. If Mexico manages to eliminate La Rojita, the conclusion will be straightforward and resounding - Mexico's youth footballers, nowadays, possess a different mentality.