The 1998 World Cup was my personal favorite. Although it was the third World Cup I saw, it was the first one I truly followed, and at the heart of it was the best performance of a Mexico National team outside of Mexico. Sure, the 2014 World Cup can now be seen at the same level, but the 98 team was historic and broke the mold with something that had been a constant with Mexico.
Heading into the 1998 World Cup, things were not looking too promising for Mexico. El Tri had qualified in first place of CONCACAF, but their performances had left a lot to be desired, especially after back-to-back draws at the Azteca against the United States and Costa Rica (at a time where Mexico was supposed to be guaranteed a win in every home qualifier). The pressure from fans ended with Bora Milutinovic getting fired and replaced with Manuel Lapuente. Lapuente had been a big critic of “Bora”, and suddenly, he was tasked with proving himself after a very successful spell at Necaxa.
His first big test was the Confederations Cup in December of 1997. The tournament was the first time it became a FIFA tournament, and it turned out to be a roller coaster and Lapuente’s first failure. It started with an upset win by Australia over Mexico 3-1. The loss was a hit for the Mexican team, but they managed to turn things around by crushing the home team Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the next game. After a shocking 0-0 draw between Brazil and Australia in the other game, Mexico was forced to win their final group stage game against a Brazilian A-team. Mexico fought bravely but eventually fell 3-2 and were eliminated in the First round.
1998 then started with Mexico winning the 1998 Gold Cup. While Mexico didn’t really shine, they were good enough to defeat the United States 1-0 in the Final, this while the US was flying high from getting their first win over Brazil in the semifinals. But then the friendly debacle started. Firs, it was an awful tour of South America where Mexico lost all three games; against Boca Juniors (3-1), Chile U20 team (2-1) and Universidad Catolica (5-1). Mexico did get some victories in the U.S. before going to Europe and making their camp in Italy, but El Tri had the advantage of having all their players in the Mexican League given permission to leave their clubs halfway through the season, even though a lot of people had problems with Lapuente cutting key players from the roster like Carlos Hermosillo, Zague and Benjamin Galindo. That advantage, nonetheless, wasn’t shown in those friendlies. Mexico had some wins, but they suffered big losses against Norway (5-2) and Wolfsburg (4-1). This most people thinking that Mexico was going to be a total failure in France.
Then the opening game of the World Cup against South Korea came and the biggest surprise was that Mexico opened being the better team. A couple of saves from the Korean goalkeeper saved their team, but against the run of play, South Korea got their opening goal after a free kick from Ha Seok-ju got deflected by Dulio Davino into the back of the net. It looked like it was the beginning of the end, but the same player gave Mexico a lifeline. FIFA had made a lot of noise before the World Cup that refs were going to give straight red cards to two-feet tackles from behind, and Ha was the first casualty when he did that against Ramon Ramirez. Despite being up a man, Mexico didn’t gel until halftime. The second half was a completely different story, and Mexico came out fighting. Alberto Garcia Aspe came close with a free kick, but it was Ricardo Pelaez who opened the scoring for El Tri. He came close with a header but then pounced on the rebound to tie the game. After the goal, Mexico dominated off the play of Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Luis Hernandez. Blanco’s performance was the start of a career that would catapult him be to one of the greatest of all time for Mexico. In what was one of his most remembered plays, he twice did the Cuauhtemiña to the Koreans, a play where he would grab the ball with both feet and jump with it. After a couple of big minutes of play, a Ramon Ramirez cross fell to Luis Hernandez, who scored the 2-1. Mexico kept dominating and showing some of their best skills, and a Blanco pass to Luis had him turn around and place the shot out of the reach of the keeper for the 3-1. Not only had Mexico won their first ever game in Europe, but they did it with style.
The next game was against a tougher Belgian team, but Mexico came out swinging. Twice they would hit the post. First with a header by Joel Sanchez and then with a cross by Jaime Ordiales. Things came crashing down, though, when Pavel Pardo had a similiar situation to Ha’s and got red-carded. Mexico lost control of the match and Marc Wilmots would open the scoring after a mistake in a corner left him wide open. The second half had Mexico trying to take control of the game, but Wilmots once again scored to double Belgium’s lead. Mexico seemed to have fallen completely off the rails until another play changed the game. Blanco made a great through pass to Ramon Ramirez, who got brought down by Gert Vernheyen. A penalty was given, and Vernheyen was red-carded for being the last man. Garcia Aspe scored for the 2-1, and the momentum of the match completely switched. Substitute Jesus Arellano took advantage of that, and after already having showed his skill against the Koreans, ran the Belgian defenders ragged. Arellano then made a great run before sending a pass to Ramirez, who made a cross to Blanco. “Cuauh” went on to make history, tying the game with a great goal after going in the air feet first and meeting the cross. An historic goal, his first and best in a World Cup. Unfortunately, Lapuente was too conservative and made all three substitutions too fast. The problem came when Hernandez got a knock on his ankle and couldn’t be subbed out. Mexico tried and had the better rest of the game, but could only get a draw, which meant they needed to get a result against the best team in the group, the Netherlands.
The Dutch were clearly best team in the group, and although they tied 0-0 with their Belgian neighbors, they crushed South Korea 5-0 and should have won by more goals. Mexico had a tough job, and four minutes in, Phillipe Cocu went through alone to open the scoring. A couple of minutes later, Ronald De Boer made a great play and put the score at 2-0. To make matters worse, Belgium had taken the 1-0 lead against South Korea, and with that result, Mexico would be out of the World Cup. The second half had the Dutch hit the post and things looked grim. About halfway into the second half, news came around that gave Mexico a boost. South Korea had tied the game. Mexico fans started to pick things up, and they would do even more when Ricardo Pelaez came on and scored. The forward hit the ball of a corner, but Blanco and the Dutch defenders went for the ball and whiffed. That play though was enough for Van der Sar to misjudge the ball and let it go in for the first goal conceded by the Dutch in the tournament. After coming inches away from drawing leveled, unfortunately Ramon Ramirez was given a red card for arguing with the ref. With the Belgians unable to score in the other game, in the final minute of play, a long cress fell to Jaap Stam, who let the ball accidentally hit the ball in his hand before falling to Luis Hernandez to score and tie the game. A Mexican team that couldn’t beat a Chile team months before had now earned a draw against World Cup candidates the Netherlands in Saint Etienne. As a result, they were through as second place of the group, and Belgium was out of the World Cup.
The Round of 16 game had Mexico facing a tough German team. Although this Germany team was a more veteran side, it was still Germany. It was a tough opponent for Mexico and they showed it. The first half had Campos make a great save from Michael Tarnat, as well as Oliver Bierhoff hitting the post. That said, Mexico had their chances, including a Marcelino Bernal shot that goalkeeper Andreas Kopke almost left for Francisco Palencia. Then the second half came and a great combination play with Blanco to Luis ended with Hernandez opening the score. Mexico then showed some of their best football. A Arellano shot hit the post and the rebound fell to Blanco. From Blanco’s pass, Luis Hernandez should have scored the second but his attempt went straight to the keeper. It looked like Mexico had let Germany live, and then Raul Rodrigo Lara provided them the two lifelines that would forever mark his career. First, he failed to clear a ball, of which went past his feet and into Jurgen Klinnsmann to tie the game. Oliver Bierhoff then would head the ball past two defenders, and Mexico’s great World Cup run was over.
Mexico’s play was great, and although the way things ended was heartbreaking, El Tri still had accomplished some great things. That team under Lapuente would have an even better 1999, when they third in Copa America and then proceeded to win the 1999 Confederations Cup (arguably Mexico’s best accomplishment by a senior national team, and from a personal note, after being live in the stadium to see it, the best moment in my sporting life). The 1998 team gave a performance that wasn’t repeated until 2014. Even if it was a different time, it was truly a game changer that showed that Mexican football had arrived in the world stage outside of the Americas.