The 2022 World Cup ended Mexico’s streak of seven consecutive Round of 16 appearances in the competition. Mexico had been the only team to do so along with Brazil during that time. Brazil continued their streak, while Mexico has lost one of their biggest accomplishments, and has become a normal team. It was very notable too that although Mexico got to the Round of 16, during that time they never won their match and thus always stayed in the Round of 16. In Mexico’s history, the only time they have won their Round of 16 match and thus the only time they won a knockout game in a World Cup was during the 1986 World Cup they hosted. Mexico’s journey to return to the “quinto partido” (fifth game) in a World Cup was well known throughout the world, but it had lead Mexico’s fans to take for granted that the Round of 16 match was a given, and that it was a constant failure to not get to the quarterfinals. But the 2022 might be the wake up call about how tough that accomplishment was, and perhaps how it was wasted on many fans.
“Don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone” is something that everybody has said over and over, from bad hair metal bands to every moody teenager. Mexicans might have finally realized it in 2022, as Mexico went out even after getting a win in their final match but losing out on goal differential to Poland. In a strange twist, even after Poland had gotten two third place finishes in a World Cup (in 1974 and 1982) they hadn’t qualified to the Round of 16 since the 1986 World Cup, where Mexico also played that quinto partido. Days after the elimination, there was a lot of praise for teams like Australia, Japan, Morocco, and South Korea. The scenes of South Korean players and fans celebrating minutes after they found out that Uruguay had only gotten a 2-0 win over Ghana, and thus they qualified over them to the Round of 16, traveled around the world. And yet in the end, only Morocco got to the quarterfinals and all those other teams only played in the Round of 16. Yet the praise for them is still high, and it looked like all of them had made a great achievement and were far from the many fans in Mexico that constantly call it a “fracaso” to make it to that stage of the World Cup and stay there.
This year, the quarterfinal of the World Cup was played by seven powerhouse teams and Morocco. Brazil, France, England, and Argentina, all of whom made it to the quinto partido, are all ex-World Cup champions. The Netherlands is a three-time finalist, while Croatia is also a former finalist, losing the 2018 World Cup Final to France. Portugal won the 2016 Euro and has been one of the top teams since their 2000 Euro Cup semifinal finish. Meanwhile, Morocco is the dark horse team that had to go to a penalty shootout to defeat Spain, another ex-World Cup champion. So besides an upset, seven out of the eight teams were top teams in world football. It all shows that making it to the quarterfinal is a tough task. Mexico just doesn’t have the level to make it to that round, and would have needed luck plus a great performance to make it. Mexico wasted great opportunities in 1994 and 2002, but overall they just have faced better teams in the Round of 16. And yet instead of being proud of the accomplishment, plenty of fans used it to say that the team is “stuck” and that we always “do the same and stay in the same” without realizing how tough the situation is to get, or how some great teams were defeated to do so.
The 2018 World Cup Final was played between France and Croatia. The strange situation was that both teams had been eliminated from a World Cup in groups were Mexico qualified to the Round of 16 and both times defeated by Mexico. In 2010, Mexico beat France by a 2-0 score as they make it out of the group stages, along with Uruguay. Then in 2014, Mexico clinched their place in the Round of 16 with a 3-1 victory over Croatia, in one of the best matches played by Mexico in a top competition. In 2018 Mexico opened the tournament with a 1-0 win over Germany, the current World Cup champion. In the end, Germany was eliminated in the group stage for the first time ever after South Korea also defeated them, but because Mexico lost to Sweden 3-0 and it was South Korea’s victory that qualified Mexico, it was another “fracaso” even so that Mexico would have been the first team to not qualify to the Round of 16 with six points had it happened. Later, they lost 2-0 to Brazil and got all the criticism for doing “nothing” in the knockout round. Cut to four years later and it’s South Korea that qualifies because of other results, and they faced Brazil. They lost badly by a 4-1 score, and yet they are proud of the result and didn’t have the nearly the same level of criticism from their fans.
Mexico took a big step backward this cycle, and unfortunately it was always a possibility. Mexico was so obsessed in playing the fifth game, they barely realized that playing the fourth game wasn’t a guaranteed, and now we have a World Cup were they only played three matches. For the first time since 1994, Mexico has dropped down a level and we will have four years where we have to know the team didn’t get out of the group stage, and that criticized match against Brazil in 2018 will be our last knockout round until at least 2026, where Mexico is a host and will have to work hard so as not to go from losing that streak to continuing a streak of host not making out of the group stages. Don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone indeed.