World Cup farewell to Colombia not so friendly for Mexico, Tata Martino
SANTA CLARA, California – It was near perfect for 45 minutes. In the same period everything collapsed.
All of Mexico’s good first-half performance against Colombia on Tuesday, arguably their best fútbol performance in a long time, was completely undone as they conceded a two-goal lead and ended up losing 3-2 at Levi’s Stadium.
World Cup farewell games aim to do two things: build hype and give players some confidence for what lies ahead. It seemed like El Tri ticked all those boxes until Colombia made a half-time substitution which completely changed the dynamic of the game. Instead of a celebratory evening, it was more the same for the Mexican fans, who have grown suspicious of what their team can or rather cannot achieve.
With 53 days to go before the World Cup, Mexico are grappling with recurring problems after those last two games, threatening confidence. Sure, they beat Peru 1-0 in the Rose Bowl on Saturday, but even that was an unconvincing performance that was turned on its head when Hirving Lozano hit the net in the 85th minute. Other than that, there wasn’t much to take away from this game, other than what we already knew: Mexico lack creativity in the last third and find it difficult to score.
On Tuesday in the Bay Area, the first half was the complete opposite of that. Mexico looked aggressive, ran straight into the box and created offense. Defensively, they crushed world-class players like Liverpool’s Luis Diaz and Juventus’ Juan Cuadrado. It was the game that took Gerardo “Tata” Martino to basically tell everyone to relax.
But that was short lived as Colombian substitute Luis Sinisterra started the half with a quick goal and equalized 3 minutes later. Wilmar Barrios buried the winning goal in the 68th minute with a sensational volley from outside the box.
“Of course, if the opponent’s number 9 is playing for Eintracht Frankfurt, their winger for Liverpool and the full-back for Juventus, there will be a point in the game where they will assert their level,” said Martino. “These are the moments when we have to keep our composure and order and not make any mistakes.”
On paper, Qatar-bound Mexico lost to a team that won’t be at the World Cup. A very good one at that, but that’s not the focus El Tri.
It’s about finding a balance that they’ve been looking for for too long. And over time, losing tournaments (especially against rivals USA), Mexico haven’t seemed to have improved enough to be in contention for a World Cup. Much of this, rightly or not, falls on Martino. The relationship has deteriorated and this loss added another element.
After Saturday’s win against Peru, Tata beamed and even joked in his post-match press conference. The tone on Tuesday was very different, argumentative and annoyed as he threw not-so-subliminal messages to former Mexican players who became media members constantly critical. He also addressed issues with the structure in Liga MX and how that is affecting the national team pool and players. While those are valid points, Martino tries to smooth out his many annoyances at every opportunity. On Saturday he said he was happy and motivated for what lies ahead, but that’s a far cry from how fans are feeling.
This undeniable friction is reaching breaking point.
“If a team doesn’t win, the outside perception is completely different,” said Martino.
Tata can poke around the media all he wants, and has done so for a while, but the only way to change the narrative is to win. When asked about striker Henry Martin, he angrily snapped back at a reporter, saying that the media was infatuated with judging a No. 9 purely on goals scored.
This is of course one of the main concerns in the area El Tri.
Much of the external noise he’s referring to was caused by his unwillingness to consider Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Mexico’s all-time top scorer, as an option for that squad. It’s clear the ship has sailed, although Hernandez has scored 10 goals in his last 10 games for the LA Galaxy, including a brace against the San Jose Earthquakes just a few hundred miles north of the Rose Bowl during Mexico’s offensive in that win over Peru stagnated .
Whether Chicharito would benefit or not El Tri is a moot point now, but it’s the way Tata has handled this situation, among many other things, that fuels this fire further.
Mexico have two friendlies remaining (Sweden and Iraq) before their World Cup opener on November 22 against Poland. For the most part, the roster is fairly defined. Last-minute decisions are being made about injured stars Raul Jimenez and Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, both key players who could give this squad the boost it needs should they make the list, although the prospects don’t look good.
Regardless, Martino is leading a team to Qatar in hopes of reaching the ‘quinto partido’ that has plagued Mexico for far too long. That would mean reaching the quarterfinals for the first time since 1986. Since then, they have been knocked out in the round of 16 at seven consecutive World Cups.
But first they have to take care of Poland, Argentina and Saudi Arabia before thinking about anything else. The results of these games, good or bad, will be taken apart as usual, with Martino probably receiving the most criticism.
Meanwhile, Mexican fans continue to cling to the “whatever happens, happens” mentality for the World Cup because, to some extent, they already know their team’s destiny: both for the tournament and for the future.
Time is pressing and the “Fuera Tata” sound is getting louder and louder.