Wins and losses are part of the life of any sports fan. The wins often come with exhilarating highs, while disappointment and sometimes despair accompany defeat. Sometimes a particular win might feel especially sweet, maybe because of its unexpectedness or as the result of a comeback. Conversely some losses are harder to take than others. As the clock wound down on Mexico's 7-0 loss to Chile on Saturday evening and the referee finally, mercifully blew the final whistle (without any added time) I recalled that feeling once again.
Even though in more than 20 years of following the team, there has not been a beatdown of that magnitude, the feeling I had following Saturday's match was one I am sure other fans of El Tricolor would have recognized. Below are 5 other losses by Mexico that gave me the exact same feeling.
5. Mexico 0 - 4 Brazil 2004 | Copa America Quarterfinals
Our first stop is the 2004 Copa America. Mexico, under coach Ricardo Lavolpe, won a formidable group after drawing Uruguay and defeating Argentina on the way to a seven point haul from three games. With veteran leadership in Rafael Marquez and Pavel Pardo as well as a young, but tested core that included a number of returnees from the squad that took runner-up honors two years prior in Colombia, hopes of equaling or even surpassing that finish began to take shape.
Those hopes were dashed however, when Brazil, having already won qualification to the quarters, dropped their group stage finale to Paraguay and slipped to second place in their group, setting up a quarterfinal date with El Tri. La Canarinha shook off any hangover from the loss to Paraguay and proceeded to pound Mexico 4-0, stifling Aztec ambitions decisively. Mexico still has not reached a Copa America final since their appearance in the 2002 edition of the tournament.
4. Mexico 1 - 2 Honduras | 2014 CONCACAF Hexagonal
The final round of qualifying for Brazil 2014 foreshadowed disaster for Mexico from the very beginning. After getting outcoached in the opener against Jamaica and escaping with a scoreless draw (at home), two realities quickly came into sharp focus: one, manager Chepo de la Torre was out of ideas and likely out of his depth, despite a complement of quality players at his disposal; and second: the mystique that Estadio Azteca held over visiting CONCACAF sides was diminished, if not gone completely. All that notwithstanding, there was still a heavy expectation that Mexico would emerge victorious after stumbling to a draw in the away fixture against the same Honduras team only because they blew a late two goal lead.
A sixth minute goal by Oribe Peralta set a positive tone early, but Honduras soon began to frustrate Mexico with their trademark combination of physical play and cynical defending. El Tri could not find an insurance tally; perhaps growing lackadaisical with the one goal lead on their home pitch. Just after the hour mark, Honduras made them pay, striking twice in the space of four minutes through Carlo Costly and Jerry Bengston. With two goals and now a lead to strengthen their resolve, los Catrachos were able to hold on, bringing Mexico to only its second ever loss in a World Cup qualifier at Estadio Azteca.
3. Mexico 0 - 3 Argentina | 2007 Copa America Semifinals
Similar to the 2004 tournament, Mexico once again headed a formidable group, toppling a CONMEBOL giant along the way, this time with Mexican legend Hugo Sanchez in charge. Their 2-0 victory over Brazil in the opener served as Nery Castillo's (remember that guy?) coming out party. After defeating Ecuador (with another goal from Castillo) and playing Chile to a scoreless draw in the group finale, Mexico rolled into the quarterfinals where they demolished a solid Paraguay team 6-0. Having beaten semi-final opponent Argentina in the previous Copa America, and now rolling with a combination of youth, experience, talent and a national hero at the helm, Mexico had the look of a team of destiny, looking set to overcome the Albiceleste en route to another showdown with Brazil in the tournament final. It never materialized, as they were unceremoniously dumped into the third place game, falling 3-0 to Argentina.
Perhaps the real gut-punch occurred in the aftermath. Bouncing back to win the third place match against Uruguay, the program looked set up to succeed going forward, with every reason to believe that Sanchez would build upon the 3rd place finish and lead the team to heights like he'd reached in his own illustrious career as a player. Beyond that, there was Castillo, who, having drawn attention through his exploits for Olympiacos, had been touted as a generational talent. Mexico had secured his commitment in the face of entreaties from his father's homeland of Uruguay, and Greece, where he was already a legal resident and eligible for citizenship. It was believed he would be a mainstay in the setup for years to come, and indeed his performance at Copa America led to his transfer from Olympiacos to Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk for a record price (at the time) both for the club and for a Mexican player.
Things quickly turned sour, unfortunately, as Castillo quickly fell out of favor at Shakhtar, benched after taking (and missing) a penalty over the objections of the team's coach. A series of loan moves failed to see him ever regain his rampaging form. The bad fortune was not limited to Castillo, either, as Hugol was dismissed following a failure to qualify the U-23 side to the 2008 Olympics, leaving fans to wonder what might have been had even one of their careers not veered so wildly off-track.
2. Mexico 1 - 2 Costa Rica | 2002 CONCACAF Hexagonal
The summer of 2001 was a nightmare for Mexico fans from start to finish. After a promising start with lopsided victories in the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying, manager Enrique Meza's tenure quickly became characterized by questionable player selection, poor tactical decisions and ugly results. The nightmare, er summer, began with El Tri off to the Confederations Cup in Korea/Japan as the defending champions, stopping in England to play a warm up friendly on the way. If you'd avoided the misfortune of seeing the game, you could be convinced that the team didn't step off the plane, as they were run off the field by England 4-0 in a game that the hosts had effectively killed off before half time. Their title defense didn't go any better as another 4-0 loss to France followed defeats at the hands of Australia and South Korea.
A return to home fortress Estadio Azteca was supposed to provide the refuge for a rebound, but the run of bad results had cost the team the faith of its supporters, and the stadium was less than half full. Not only that, but support had severely eroded for manager Meza, as speculation was rampant that his days at the helm were numbered. Mexico seemed to calm fears early with a goal from Jose Manuel Abundis in the opening ten minutes, after which the players surrounded their embattled coach, revealing messages of support on their undershirts. El Tri nursed that lead until the 73rd minute when Costa Rica found an equalizer through Rolando Fonseca, while the winner came about 15 minutes later from Hernan Medford, who the week before the game talked a healthy dose of trash and predicted Costa Rica's victory. At the end of 90 minutes, Mexico had lost a World Cup qualifier in Estadio Azteca for the first time in history. Enrique Meza lasted one more game, a 3-1 defeat away to Honduras before getting the boot.
1. Mexico 0 - 2 USA 2002 World Cup Round of 16
With just four points from five games, the qualifying situation to Korea/Japan 2002 was dire. The federation got rid of Meza, and his replacement, Javier Aguirre, got rid of nearly everybody else. Gone almost immediately were mainstays Luis Hernandez, Jorge Campos, and Claudio Suarez, not to mention some of Meza's more curious selections. In addition to a core drawn from high flying teams Pachuca and Cruz Azul, Aguirre welcomed back Jesus Arellano, whose absence under Meza no one understood, and also oversaw the return of former captain Alberto Garcia Aspe, undergoing a career resurgence at Puebla. Led by Aguirre, a change in the team's disposition was immediate and noticeable.
At the World Cup, drawn into a group that included Croatia, Ecuador and Italy, Aguirre had Mexico playing disciplined, inspired football. Against a Croatian team littered with players from Europe's biggest clubs, Mexico bossed the midfield and controlled the match en route to a 1-0 victory. Gerardo Torrado in particular was a revelation, controlling and distributing against Croatia, nicking the match-winner against Ecuador and shutting down Francesco Totti in the group stage finale against Italy, a 1-1 draw that featured Jared Borgetti scoring a marvelous reverse header and secured Mexico's finish at the top of the group. The combination of high quality technical play, a sharp tactical approach that played to the team's strengths and toughness attributable to the no-nonsense approach of Aguirre had many observers convinced that they could make a deep run into the tournament.
Waiting in the round of 16 was continental rival, the United States. While from a technical standpoint the Americans represented a beatable opponent, there was no other side in the tournament who would be as motivated to play Mexico, nor one who would be quite so familiar with El Tri's tactics or personnel. Complicating the outlook for Mexico was the recent success the US had had against them and the frustration caused by the Americans' approach that prioritized dogged defending and speed on the break.
The Americans executed their game plan to perfection as they found an early goal on the break. Beyond the benefit of being a goal to the good, their deft execution had forced Aguirre into pulling Ramon Morales off in favor of Luis Hernandez, called back to the team in a reserve role, before the half hour mark. It was a tactical adjustment uncharacteristic of Aguirre's approach in that it reeked of panic, and genuinely left observers scratching their heads, as Morales was one of the few Mexican players who'd posed an offensive threat to that point. As the game wore on, despite keeping possession, Mexico's failure to find the goal kept the frustration levels mounting, and just after the hour mark, the US added a second, again on the counter. With the game all over but the shouting by the 88th minute, captain Rafael Marquez stamped his own end to the proceedings, being sent off for kicking and headbutting Cobi Jones. At the end of 90 minutes, the heartbreak was real, and players and fans alike were left to lament the loss of perhaps their best shot at the elusive quinto partido at the hands of their bitterest rival.