Sports

Mexico Played 20 Minutes of Relentless Soccer Against Brazil

Soccer matches aren’t 20 minutes long.

Mexico's Miguel Layun sad after loss.
Mexico’s defender Miguel Layún reacts to his team’s 2–0 loss. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images.

For the first 20 minutes, it looked like Mexico might pull it off.

The plan was to stand up to Brazil from the opening whistle, to avoid its unlucky seventh straight defeat in the World Cup’s Round of 16 by catching its opponents off guard with aggression and attacking. Mexico pressed Brazil high up the pitch and drove forward with speed after turnovers. It looked like an underdog determined to get to its bully first, hoping it might land a George McFly–type haymaker before Brazil knew what was coming.

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It didn’t work. Mexico’s attacking flurry hit nothing but air. Javier Hernández, Carlos Vela, and Hirving Lozano created chances but rarely looked dangerous. They raced past backpedaling defenders but couldn’t beat anyone who stood them up. Their decision-making in and around their opponent’s box, which cost them two or three insurance goals in their upset win against Germany, remained baffling. Someone should have made the three of them play FIFA together, or at least introduced them to one another before the tournament. Mexico finished the game with 14 shots, only one of which had to be saved by Brazil keeper Alisson.

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In the 20th minute, Mexico left back Jesús Gallardo provided a neat summation of the opening period when he nutmegged tertiary Brazilian star Willian, passing the ball between his open legs. Such a move is ordinarily something of a humiliation, except Gallardo’s pass rolled harmlessly into a patch of empty ground and was recovered by a Brazilian player. That more or less ended the period of Mexican assertiveness. Though it managed to keep the game scoreless until the 51st minute, it was all Brazil from that point on.

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The three Mexican defenders who followed Neymar across the top of the 18-yard box on the Brazilian goal are apparently the last people in the world to hear that he hadn’t been having a great tournament. Willian paused just long enough over Neymar’s back heel to sap Hugo Ayala of his momentum, then surged past him and into space to hit a low cross for Neymar to stab home.

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One might think the prospect of having to take penalties on Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who spent much of the game parrying hard-hit Brazilian shots away like an octopus enrolled in Mr. Miyagi’s School of Housework & Karate Technique, would have scared Brazil into showing more urgency in attack. But it took another 35 minutes for Brazil to put the game out of reach, with Neymar finally finding the kind of open space in transition the scouting reports tell you not to give Neymar. Ochoa deflected his shot with a foot, but fresh substitute Roberto Firmino beat the Mexico defenders to the ball to finish.

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Neymar being Neymar, he still found a way to ensure that his performance Monday wouldn’t be remembered for a goal and an assist.

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Unfortunately for connoisseurs of the man’s method acting, the clip cuts off roughly a tenth of the way into his rolling, rocking, writhing performance. Miguel Layún was lucky to get away with deliberately crunching a fallen opponent’s ankle, and Neymar is lucky that there’s no way he could do any more to damage his reputation in this arena. By that point, it was the most harm Mexico could hope to inflict on Brazil. It had moved from big swings to cheap shots.

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