The setting is Stade de la Mosson, in Montpellier, France. June 29, 1998. It is the FIFA World Cup Round of 16 match between the powerful Germany National Team and the underdog Mexico National Team. With the score already surprisingly in Mexico’s favor by a score of 1-0 thanks to a Luis Hernandez world-class finish only 13 minutes earlier, Mexico now finds itself full-on defending against a clearly dangerous German squad who has taken total possession of the game. With the ball in Mexico’s half, a lazy pass by the Germans is intercepted by Jesus “Cabrito” Arellano, it’s run back the entire field, and upon entering the penalty box, with the Mexican losing his balance, Lothar Matthäus nearly scores in his own net if not for keeper Andreas Köpke deflecting the accidental impact by his defender. The ball goes off the post and ends up at Cuauhtemoc Blanco’s feet, who serves up a meatball for Luis Hernandez to just push into the net. “El Matador”, probably not aware of how wide open he was and desperate to get the shot off, uses the inside part of his foot, which ends up sending the ball in a straight trajectory, right into Köpke’s hands. And just like that, a possible 2-0 lead disappeared, and Mexico would not come close to scoring again.
The Mexico NT had a stellar first round in the 1998 World Cup. Grouped with South Korea, Belgium, and Netherlands, there were many doubts surrounding Mexico having a chance due to the tough teams drawn. But with a convincing 3-1 victory over the South Korean NT, along with two very gutty comebacks vs. both European squads from 2-0 down, Mexico was only second in the group to the Netherlands due to goal difference. They showed they could compete with the best and were ready for the next challenge. That next challenge was Germany in the Round of 32.
In what was a true David vs. Goliath matchup, the game occurred pretty much as everyone had expected. The first half was vastly dominated by Germany, as they created all the real threats and seemed to be off by just a hair on certain plays. Jorge Campos also played a huge role in keeping the score 0-0 at the half. And as the second half was under way, only 2 minutes in, Cuauhtemoc took the ball just outside Germany’s penalty box, touched it to “El Matador”, who faked a shot, got his marker out of the way, and crossed the ball past Köpke. Mexico were euphoric, as they were responsible for the biggest upset in the WC up to that point.
Mexico had its next chance on a counter-attack play, on a cross by Cuauhtemoc which Palencia just missed thanks to the German defense, and the ball dropped in Köpke’s hands. Head coach Manuel Lapuente realized what was going on. Germany had taken control of the ball and were on an all-out attack against his squad. He knew the only way was to sit back and wait for his chance by counter-attacking. He adjusted accordingly, subbing off Palencia and bringing on “Cabrito” at the 53rd minute. Seven minutes later, his strategy would pay off, with Arellano intercepting and throttling at full speed, with the play ending in “El Matador’s” gigantic missed opportunity.
From that point on, Mexico would not come close again. They were unable to get control of the ball and create any kind of offense, with Germany suffocating any and all attempts. But what many seem to forget is that the score was kept at 1-0 for the next 15 minutes following Hernandez’s miss, with many weak and desperate attempts by the Germans, ending in nothing. It wasn’t until the 74th minute, on a bad cross sent in by Dietmar Hamann, botched by Mexican MF Raul Rodrigo Lara, that allowed the ball to reach Jürgen Klinsmann’s boots, to finally break the game even. He should’ve cleared the ball in any direction out of the box instead of attempting to control it, unless he lost sight of it in plain flight. But for some reason, this play is not highlighted as much as Hernandez’s, when both share equal blame.
So, had Hernandez scored, even though there was half an hour yet to be played, I believe it would’ve been the final dagger in Germany, and would not have risen from that emotional defeat, now behind by 2 goals. I believe Mexico would’ve created even more chances to pile it on, as they got their clearest opportunities following the 1-0 goal to take the lead.
What was to come next? Mexico would’ve gone on to face Croatia, a difficult task indeed with players such as Dario Simic, Mario Stanic, and of course, the all-time great Davor Suker. In no way would this have been an easy task, but it was definitely a more winnable match-up than France, Italy, Brazil, Argentina, or the Netherlands (just some of the other Quarter-Finalists). And after accomplishing what they did vs. Belgium and the Netherlands in the Group stage, Mexico had a legitimate shot at reaching their first ever Semifinal match in a World Cup, against a very similar Croatian squad. And had they defeated Croatia, up next was France. To have had a showdown with the WC home team would’ve been something more than spectacular to see. One can only guess what the outcome would be from that point on, as it is indeed improbable Mexico would’ve gotten further than that point.
And so, Mexico’s chances of moving on evaporated in those two plays vs. Germany. We can only dream what the future held next, had that feisty, talent-filled, and more than anything, fearless Mexican NT reached the next round.