Mexico's win is redemption for Juan Carlos Osorio after waves of criticism
MOSCOW -- Just one day short of the second anniversary of Mexico's worst ever defeat, El Tri achieved what is widely being acclaimed as its best at a World Cup.
It was back on June 18, 2016, that Mexico capitulated against Chile, losing 7-0 in a match that striker Javier Hernandez said "hurt Mexico's soul." There were calls for coach Juan Carlos Osorio to be fired that very night, but El Tri has rebuilt since then, with Sunday's 1-0 win over Germany to take an early lead in Group F at Russia 2018 the shock result of the tournament so far.
Back in Mexico, journalists seem to respect Osorio as a person, but pundits have consistently slammed his methods, in particular his rotation policy. This Mexico side was booed after its sendoff victory over Scotland, and tensions came to the fore when El Tri lost 2-0 to Denmark last Saturday.
How perceptions can turn around for a manager with one result and good performance. Amid all the rumors of parties and rupture in the Mexico camp, the players maintained a message of unity, but the proof was always going to be on the pitch. Would the players back Osorio? Would they play for each other?
It took just 55 seconds to see that Mexico is in a good place at Russia 2018.
El Tri created a chance before Germany even had any possession. Hector Moreno picked up the ball in his own half and played a risky pass into Hernandez, who dropped deeper to receive it. That created space for Carlos Vela, who slid a pass through to Hirving Lozano. The PSV Eindhoven winger's effort was blocked, but this was a passage of play straight out of Osorio's style guide.
Yes, the players believe in Osorio, and Sunday's win was a kind of redemption after the waves of criticism in Mexico, even though he doesn't appear to be the type of person to hold grudges.
"I want to dedicate this win to the Mexico fans, those that have supported me and those that haven't," Osorio said in a news conference after the win. But through all the criticism and uneasy relationship with the press, the players have remained onside and clearly believed in a strategy to defeat Germany that came into fruition six months ago in Osorio's mind.
Ironically, the 7-0 loss was a key factor in Mexico's resurgence, almost like the bedrock of a rebuilding plan. Rock bottom was hit, and as such, there was only one way up. That emphatic defeat isn't something that the group wants to forget; actually, the opposite is true. That loss to Chile was a reminder of Mexico's fragility and perhaps goes a way toward explaining Osorio's decision-making against Germany, especially the choice to play a little more conservatively in midfield, with Andres Guardado and Hector Herrera shielding the defense.
"Nobody remembers the 7-0, but we do. You can't forget that situation," goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa said after the game. "Everything we have suffered and gone through has been useful experience for things like today."
Osorio remains one of the most successful Mexican managers ever in terms of win percentage, and the victory over Germany might be a catalyst to change perceptions.
"It reaffirms that the coach's methods [work], that the group is with him, even if they say we are divided, there were fights or whatever," Guardado said after Sunday's win. "The group is strong and united and blindly believe in the coach."
Mexico's leader, Rafa Marquez, was even more supportive of Osorio than Guardado and believes the Colombian deserves most of the credit for their famous win.
"We dedicate the win to [Osorio] because he deserves it the most," Marquez said. "He's worked, he's suffered a lot, and no one believed in him apart from us, and he's planned this very well."
Of course, none of this means a great deal if Mexico doesn't advance from the group. The goal from the fans' point of view remains the "quinto partido," or quarterfinal. Even if the players haven't been shy in stating their aim of winning the competition, a spot in the final eight would elevate Osorio from a figure of near derision in Mexico to a hero. Such is the fickle nature of football.
Mexico obviously won't be a favorite for the World Cup after one victory, but the prospect of El Tri making a deep run and shocking a few other sides in Russia wouldn't be so surprising.
After all, El Tri has already defeated many people's favorites for the title. Next, though, Mexico must deal with Korea on June 23 in Rostov.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.