DOHA, Qatar — Mexico has spent decades cycling through managers and surviving crises, moving from generation to generation, and for 40 years, when not disqualified, without fail, it nonetheless advanced to the World Cup knockout stages.
It often braved boos and weathered controversy. It existed, for month after month, amid mayhem. But for seven consecutive World Cups, beginning in 1994, it played a fourth game. It cemented itself in the global soccer conversation, as a cultural cornerstone of the sport, as a fútbol-mad nation that earned and deserved its place among the last 16.
But on Wednesday, for the first time since 1978, its consistency crumbled and the streak came crashing down.
El Tri beat Saudi Arabia, 2-1, but needed to win by more. Throughout a chaotic second half, while up 2-0, they pushed and pushed for a third goal — because, as things stood, with Argentina beating Poland 2-0, the Mexicans were heading home on the sixth of seven tiebreakers, yellow cards.
In pushing, it left itself vulnerable. Saudi Arabia broke into gaping space. Its stoppage-time goal was materially meaningless but symbolically powerful. It represented Mexico’s fall, from regional power and global contender to the middle of a muddled international pack.
It will be pinned on all sorts of factors and humans, on untimely injuries and head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino. It has already spurred a reboot as Martino revealed after the game that his contract with Mexico "ended as soon as the referee blew the whistle." The reckoning has begun.
It oh-so-nearly could have been different. On Wednesday night at the Lusail Stadium, there were goals disallowed by offside flags. There were chances missed and shots palmed away by Saudi Arabia’s busy goalkeeper, Mohammed Al-Owais.
But on balance, it had been coming. It had been coming throughout a fraught and uninspiring 2022. It had been coming since the opening day of Group C, when Mexican fans brought passion and noise, but Mexican players, aside from Memo Ochoa, brought very little. It had been expected ever since Lionel Messi broke staunch resistance on Saturday with 88,000 people screaming all around him.
On Wednesday, Messi and the Argentines did to Poland exactly what they’d done to Mexico, meaning Mexico had to do better than Poland had done to Saudi Arabia — a 2-0 win. And it couldn’t. The elusive quinto partido, the fifth game, became an elusive cuarto partido. Mexico achieved its worst World Cup performance since it lost all three games at Argentina in 1978, and the fallout has only just begun.