Key analysis: Is it time for Mexico to finally lift their World Cup curse?

Key analysis: Is it time for Mexico to finally lift their World Cup curse?
Key analysis: Is it time for Mexico to finally lift their World Cup curse?
Key analysis: Is it time for Mexico to finally lift their World Cup curse?
Mexico have made a habit since 1986 of being very successful in the group stage at World Cups, but that can't be said in the knockout stages. Can they turn the tables in Qatar or will their disappointment continue?

It is hard to imagine one of the highest-ranked national teams - currently 13th in the FIFA rankings - going to Qatar without great aspirations.

Yet in Mexico, expectations are extremely limited.

There are many factors for this and the first is history. An entire generation has grown up in the 130-million-strong country that does not remember the sporting successes of the national team.

The last time Mexico advanced further than the round of 16 was in 1986, when it hosted the tournament itself.

For years, there has been talk of the 'curse of Mexico', which emerges from the group after three games, only to fall away in the fourth match. This year, considerations not at all superstitious speak in favour of this theory.

Even if the Mexicans are not afraid of competing against Poland and Saudi Arabia, they are not counting on finishing first in the group because they assume it is reserved for Argentina.

After all, they remember how much pain that team inflicted on them in 2006. And if they advance - as predicted - from second place, they'll be up against France and, bang, another blow in the second round.

Assuming, however, that by some miracle Argentina are behind them, then they will face Denmark and then again their hopes of advancing are slim. It's a curse for a reason.

It's not that Mexican fans don't follow or intend to support them - quite the contrary.

The group match between Mexico and Argentina will take place at the same venue as the final - the Lusail Iconic Stadium - and El Tri fans have thrown themselves at tickets regardless of price.

Between 40,000 and 60,000 Mexican fans are expected to come to Qatar and they will be with the team regardless of the results.

That is what they are taught when supporting Mexico, who under Gerardo 'Tata' Martino (59) are watched with clenched teeth rather than pride and joy.


Mexico, under Martino, are playing a brand of football that is not the best to watch, but which has its advantages.

High pressing, a tendency to look for counter attacks, and, on top of that, dominance in possession of the ball - these are a few characteristics that their rivals have to watch out for.

The team exchanges many short passes and likes to impose a tempo on opponents. It spends much more time than other teams with the ball in its rivals' penalty area, which - together with an overall advantage in possession - was a distinguishing feature of Mexico's qualification for the 2022 World Cup.

El Tri's additional strengths are its stars from Napoli and Ajax, namely Hirving Lozano (27) and Edson Alvarez (25). The former was Mexico's most valuable player at the time of his transfer (around €42million) and feels very much at home in Napoli's gleaming frontline.

In more than 100 appearances for Napoli, he has scored 23 goals, and in the last two games before the trip to Qatar, he scored a goal and two assists. He is creative and he is difficult for rivals to keep an eye on him. A man to watch out for at the World, just like Alvarez.

Because of his position between the midfield and defence, 'El Machin' is less recognisable, but for the Mexican national team he has become indispensable.

It is he who, in Martino's favoured 4-3-3 formation, fuses the lines and perfectly manoeuvres between them, imposing the pace on his older colleagues in midfield. He may pick up a few yellow cards along the way in the Netherlands, but it shows a feisty character ready to fight for his country.

The team built by Martino is based on experience, and many of his players know each other very well. Defender Jesus Gallardo (28) has had the most call-ups during his tenure (77), but he is by no means the oldest.

After all, the ironclad place in the national team's goal is held by Guillermo Ochoa (37), for whom Qatar will already be the fifth FIFA global tournament in a row. And although he's got his years, he's also got statistics on his side.

He played all the matches in qualification and saved more shots than any other goalkeeper at the last World Cup.


While we are on the subject of ageing footballers, Mexico has one of the oldest squads at the tournament.

Ochoa is not even the oldest, as the other goalkeeper, Alfredo Talavera, has already turned 40. However, while this position in terms of age is governed by its own rules, ageing has a much bigger impact on those playing in the outfield.

Mexico had an average age of players close to 29 during qualification. So, while we can marvel at Alvarez's potential in midfield, the Mexico captain playing alongside him - Andres Guardado - has already turned 36.

Somewhat related to age is the problem of Mexico's stagnation under Martino.

There is a widespread perception that there is not enough young blood in the team and that the dynamics of the national team's game leave much to be desired.

On top of that,they are unable to play the entire match at a quick tempo. This is a fundamental problem for a team that likes high pressing and is looking for attacking opportunities.

Lozano is emerging as the star of the national team, but the onus should not be on him to score all of their goals.

In the meantime, Mexico lacks a true number nine. Mexico's Argentine manager has consistently wanted to use Wolverhampton Wanderers' Raul Jimenez (31) in that position, but he has not played since August due to injury.

Traditionally, Sevilla midfielder Jesus Corona (29) from Sevilla has done that job in the team, but he too has been struggling with injury since the summer and has missed out on the squad.

Rogelio Funes Mori (31) is a strong candidate for many, but he has only played two full games for Monterrey since August.

Uriel Antuna (25) made a good showing in a recent friendly against Iraq with a goal and an assist, but he too is normally a midfielder and not used to carrying the burden of finishing the attacks on a daily basis.

Henry Martin (29) is performing very well in the Liga MX - could he be the answer? It's a shame that even Martino doesn't know the answer to that question before the first group match.

The goal-scoring problem is not new - it's one of the many characteristics that Mexico have struggled to contend with in qualification.

Not only did his team fail to beat the USA and Canada in qualifying (two away defeats, two draws at home), but they also scored far less than their rivals, including in matches against weaker teams.

Sparring matches before the World Cup also do not inspire optimism.

Only against Iraq and Suriname did Mexico manage to score more than two goals. The last high-scoring win against a solid rival was 4-0 in a friendly against Nigeria in July... last year.

Ideal starting XI (4-3-3)

Ochoa – Sanchez, Montes, Araujo, Gallardo – Guardado, Alvarez, Rodriguez – Lozano, Martin, Vega

Even football laymen do not need to be explained why Ochoa is in goal. After all, nobody asks why there is an Eiffel Tower in Paris.

If Ochoa has been between the sticks for four World Cups and has played well, why change it?

The proposed defence is one of its younger variants, although not overly daring. In the meeting with Iraq, Tata Martino also tested a two other young defenders but he will head back to experience for the tournament.

Against Iraq, this can be afforded, but the manager can't expect any firm answers on the effectiveness of the defence after this type of match.

A midfield triangle with a mobile apex in the form of Alvarez seems the most obvious move for Martino - the trio have good chemistry and experience.

The attack remains the most problematic. The Martin-Vega duo have a very good record in their home league and know each other well, while Lozano is pure gold for his national side. Such an attack can perform quite well if it gets into a good rhythm during the tournament.

Its fundamental flaw, though, is that there is no way to calibrate it properly.

Hottest contest

For Mexico's fans, the troubles in attack are a cause for concern, indeed it seems to be even for the manager himself, who refused to name his 26-man squad until the last possible moment.

His decision on the attacking line-up seems to have had the most far-reaching consequences, and we won't know until the final game of the group stage whether he made the right decision. Every choice is fraught with risk.

No wonder the Mexican media are following Jimenez's every move closely, as if to speed up his return to full strength.

Jimenez has been in England, Jimenez is back at the training camp, Jimenez is seen in a taxi. How fast is he moving? How many training sessions has he missed? Is he taking injections? Because if not him, then who?

Concern for Jimenez has been expressed by Wolves' new coach Julen Lopetegui (56). After all, the team is in last place in the Premier League table and will face a relegation fight in the spring.

The Spaniard therefore needs the striker to be in the best possible shape, and performing too early can only aggravate his groin injury and thus take him out of the game for an extended period.

"The important thing for me is not the World Cup, but Wolves. I respect his decision and that of the selector, but we have to defend our goals," added the coach, who is slowly preparing for the return round in the Premier League.


It is difficult to see Mexico making it far into the knockout phase of the tournament, and their run of round of 16 exits could strike again in Qatar.

In order to make history and lift the curse, the team would have to play at the top of their game and rely on the individual skills of its leaders. 

That is a lot to ask for from a team that is not sure who its leaders will be when their first game comes around on November 22nd against Poland.