A tough match for Mexico saw the squad not only survive, but thrive with a 3-1 triumph over a stubborn Croatia team. El Tri is now through to the round of 16.
Coach Miguel Herrera said before the game that Mexico's players would live out the words of their national anthem and fight until the final minute for the win. Translated, the anthem reads in part: "Think, beloved homeland, that heaven gave you a soldier in each son." In Recife, the enormous contingent of fans that turned out for Mexico sang the words at full volume, as if to infuse the players with determination.
The group stage had left El Tri unbeaten and yet still vulnerable to elimination. With Brazil-Cameroon progressing as expected to a Brazil victory, Mexico needed a win or a draw to advance in second place.
Croatia, however, could only advance over El Tri with a win. Yet, perhaps a bit surprisingly, it was Croatia who started the match looking to maintain possession and probe carefully for an opening, while Mexico used speed and dribbling skill to strike quickly on the counter. While the Croats had control of the ball more, Mexico had the most clear-cut chances in the first half.
Certain Mexico players came prepared and ready to triumph. Jose Juan "Gallito" (Little Rooster) Vazquez was key to many plays. Ivan Rakitic tackled Vazquez so hard and late in the ninth minute that he earned the game's first yellow card. Hector Herrera banged a shot off the crossbar in the 16th minute with an excellent shot. He was probably El Tri's best player in the entire match.
Oribe Peralta had his chance to be Mexico's hero again snuffed out in the 19th minute. He chased down a pass in the box only to slip just slightly at the moment he made contact with the ball, sending his effort wide of the target.
With Mexico seizing the initiative, it seemed they might be rewarded for more incisive play, but neither team was able to breach the defense. In the 39th minute, with Mexico's players pushed high into the attack for a corner, Croatia cleared the ball quickly for a counterattack of their own. In order to stop Ivan Perisic, Rafael Marquez brought him down from behind, picking up a yellow card.
The match only got scrappier from there, with much surreptitious shoving between players on almost every tackle and jostle for position.
In the second half, Mexico's players kept their momentum going, even when, to their frustration, they weren't immediately rewarded. Though they again had more chances than Croatia, the first goal still didn't fall for some time.
In fact, Mexico seemed cursed by another referee error in the 65th minute, when a handball in the box by Darijo Srna was missed completely by the officials. Javier Hernandez, who had recently come in as a sub for Giovani dos Santos, was apoplectic, appealing to the referee to no avail.
Yet Mexico did not despair. Vazquez sacrificed on a hard tackle to earn a yellow of his own while stopping a Croatia attack in the 66th minute. Mexico continued to charge Croatia's goal.
It was the team captain who finally led the way to open the scoring. In his timeless style, Rafa Marquez joined the attack on a corner kick in the 72nd minute, rising high to bang the ball into the goal past Croatian goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa, like Marquez, the only holdover on his team who played in the 2002 World Cup match between the two squads. Mexico won that match, as well, so perhaps Pletikosa felt a bit of deja vu.
With the goal by Marquez, the floodgates opened. Veteran Andres Guardado added one of his own in the 75th minute, gaining redemption after a difficult 2013 with the squad.
'Chicharito' Hernandez, after more than a year scoreless for his country, got a goal for Mexico, as well, putting away a header of his own in the 82nd minute. He was in tears after his accomplishment, but like the celebrations of the Mexican fans in the stands, they were tears of joy.
Croatia managed a consolation when it no longer mattered, when Ivan Perisic finally got a goal past Ochoa in the 87th minute.
Frustrated by their failure, Croatia would finish with 10 men, since Ante Rebic earned a red for a tackle on Carlos Pena.
Mexico, however, would finish victorious, with the stands vibrating to another song, the "Cielito Lindo" classic. It's the tune that accompanies El Tri wins. To the players who had soldiered on and earned the conquest over Croatia, it was the sweetest sound of all.