Mexico out to end "Fifth Game" curse
Miguel Herrera didn't hesitate when asked what would define Mexico's success in the World Cup this year.
"Success would be, at a minimum, to make the step to a fifth game," Herrera said.
It's the fifth game -- a quarterfinal -- that has been, in and of itself, a chimera for El Tri -- a goal that is so close, but yet so elusive.
Since 1994, Mexico has advanced out of the group stage at every World Cup, something that powerhouses such as France and Argentina could not manage. That impressive consistency at the world's toughest tournament is marred by a corresponding fact -- the round of 16 is as far as El Tri has advanced every time. The fifth game is still yet to be played.
It's become known as a curse for the squad, and oddly, it also means that many fans take advancement for granted. Many would also prefer a more diabolical trade-off -- if possible -- for Mexico to fail to advance in a World Cup in exchange for going deeper into the tournament next time.
So the blessing of regular advancement out of the group stage is overshadowed by the failure of the fourth game, which means, of course, that the fifth game never happens.
In 1994, Mexico started the fourth-game-and-out streak against Bulgaria, where El Tri actually drew the match 1-1, but failed to advance on penalties.
Four years later, Mexico's fourth game opponent was Germany, and a 2-1 loss there doomed El Tri's efforts.
Infamously, Mexico faced the United States, a regional rival, in the 2002 World Cup. The "Dos a Cero" result there stung more than usual because many Mexico fans were confident that the team would advance against the Americans in the tournament that really mattered.
In the past two World Cups, Mexico has gone out in the fourth game to Argentina, by scores of 2-1 and 3-1.
In sum, Mexico has been kept out of a fifth game in a recent World Cup in as many different ways as one can imagine, by teams in different regions.
Of course, one can't get to a fifth game without advancing out of the group stage, and that's Mexico's first step, of course. Cameroon, Brazil and Croatia are the opponents the team must overcome on points to finish in first or second place.
However, at that stage, there's a rugged mentality in the knockout rounds that Mexico has failed to display at the World Cup. Advancement in elimination games isn't always pretty. Emotional teams who are thrown off by bad calls or baited by dives or cheap shots from opponents often have difficulty. Teams do best when they adjust to the circumstances and remain undeterred from their goals. In some of the elimination matches, Mexico's frustration at some misfortune would be clearly visible, and degradation in their playing ability would soon follow.
It may not be to Mexico's benefit, in terms of trying to reach the fifth game, that a man as passionate as Herrera is in charge. He's not the type to stay in control if Mexico gets robbed in some way during the World Cup.
Then again, Herrera is also not the type to lower his expectations, and that is what has helped drive his teams to great success in the past. He has specifically set his sights on breaking the curse and reaching the fifth game.
The man on a mission may just make it happen for Mexico.