Sports

An Exorcism 40 Years in the Making

On Mexico’s historic World Cup victory over Germany.

Hirving Lozano kneels on the pitch and pumps his fist in celebration.
Mexico’s Hirving Lozano celebrates after scoring during the match against Germany on Sunday.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images.

It’s been 48 hours and I still can’t believe it: On Sunday, against all odds, Mexico beat Germany, reigning World Cup champion and undisputed machine of world soccer, in a stunning display of tactical brilliance, athletic prowess, and pure sporting hunger. Over the past decade, the Germans have methodically altered their approach to the game through an unprecedented development program that has radically altered the way the country plays the sport, teaching youngsters to forgo pure German strength and embrace possession and flair. The experiment reached its pinnacle four years ago in Brazil, where Germany destroyed the home team at its own game and won the tournament handily. The rest of the world could only watch in awe.

For Mexican fans of my generation, the ascent of this new, ferociously Latin version of German soccer was particularly upsetting, all the more when we learned that we would play against the world champions in Russia, in our own team’s debut. For months, I couldn’t help but shudder at the mere idea of the match. It seemed like a recurring nightmare. There was, you see, an awful coincidence weighing heavily upon me.

It is quite probably my first memory. Forty years ago, in Argentina, a youthful Mexican team faced Germany, then—as now—world champions. I was almost 4 years old, but I remember the moment quite vividly. My whole family had gathered in front of a large, clunky television. My grandfather, a soccer fan if there ever was one, sat next to me. My father and my mother stood to my left, eagerly awaiting the match. The expectation was palpable. Mexico had high hopes for its team, which included a bunch of talented, creative players led by a very young Hugo Sánchez. The team’s coach, José Antonio Roca, had predicted the tournament would be Mexico’s long-awaited breakthrough—that we would finally arrive, leave our mark on soccer’s biggest stage. West Germany, of course, had other plans. The game was an absolute debacle. In a sudden jolt of masochism, I watched it again a couple of weeks ago. It was much worse than I recalled. The Germans scored six times, each goal worse than the previous one. The Mexican players seemed stunned, infantile, naïve, and, worst of all, profoundly frightened. It was a public humiliation that scarred a whole generation of Mexican fans. We were among them. I still remember the silence in the room after each German goal. The disappointment, it seemed, went beyond sport. It felt strangely personal.

And so it was with genuine trepidation that I approached Sunday’s game. I went up and down the German lineup. The backbone of this soccer juggernaut hadn’t changed much since 2014. The team that had erased Brazil 7–1 in 2014 had, if anything, gotten stronger. To the likes of Neuer, Kroos, Hummels, Özil, Boateng, and Müller, one now had to add the hungry, fresh talent of Goretzka, Brandt, and Draxler, the latter of whom was on the squad in 2014 but had since been elevated to a starting role. That roster, and Germany’s now world famous statistical analysis of its opponents—winning on the pitch raised to a ruthless art form—made me think we could quickly find ourselves back in 1978, the eternal recurrence of our awful shame.

After all, Mexico had struggled to find decent form under quirky coach Juan Carlos Osorio. For years, Osorio, a headstrong and eloquent Colombian, had kept experimenting, switching his players around, placing them in unfamiliar positions, insisting on formations that seemed ill-suited for Mexico’s talents, changing the whole team from one game to the next. Osorio’s extravagance, many of us thought, was not a sign of some hidden genius but rather the mark of a suave, snake-oil salesman. It all just seemed too much like déjà vu, as if we were headed for disaster once more. The Germans probably thought so, too. Turns out, we all were wrong—all of us except Osorio, at least.

What a game it was! It became apparent fairly quickly that Osorio had figured out the Germans as no one else had in a long, long time. He made life impossible for Toni Kroos, probably the best organizing midfielder in the world, and forced the Germans to build with Boateng rather than Hummels. By isolating German creativity at the feet of their least talented player, Osorio opened the door to the prodigious second act of his Moscow coup. Without Kroos or Özil (also expertly covered), Mexico knew, Germany would give the ball away quickly and often. When they did, Osorio’s men displayed one of the most astounding counterattacking games the sport has seen in recent years. Truth be told, in only the first half, Mexico should have scored at least three times. The difference between the two teams was that great.

When the goal did arrive, it was a thing of beauty. Mexico stole the ball in its own half and sprinted forward. Javier Hernández turns, leaving Hummels on the floor; one touch to Guardado, who immediately returns the favor; Hernández sprints like a madman and feeds Hirving Lozano, who’s darted in from the left, a man on a mission. Lozano gets the ball at full speed, and inside the box he fakes and bluffs in half a breath. Özil takes the bait and freezes, stunned. Lozano is suddenly alone. He takes a beat and BAM!—the ball hits the back of the net. The whole beautiful thing takes nine seconds of blistering, perfect soccer.

Over the next 60 minutes, Mexico could have doubled or tripled that 1–0 lead. Germany could have tied, too. But the Mexican defense was just too good, its discipline absolute. Joachim Löw, Germany’s coach, sent every attacking player he had on the bench. In the last few seconds, even Neuer, the team’s fabled goalkeeper, left his post in search of the tying goal. It wasn’t to be. Not this time. This was Mexico’s game.

When the referee blew the final whistle and the overjoyed narrator said, “Mexico has beaten Germany!,” I fell to my knees and cried. You might think it’s too much, and you may be right, but it had taken me 40 years to witness an exorcism. I heard my father and my brother jump around in the living room, embracing and hollering. And then I felt someone’s hand on my shoulder. It was my son, who had been sitting next to me throughout the game. He was wearing a green jersey and had a big, confident smile on his face. His eyes were moist with that unmistakable glimmer of joy. This, I thought, would be his first memory. It was then that I stood up. The world, I kid you not, seemed different.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the 2018 World Cup.

You can hear León Krauze and a panel of Latino journalists discuss fútbol and a host of other subjects every Thursday on El Gabfest en Español, Slate’s first Spanish-language podcast. (There’s one English-language segment each week, too.)