2018 a pivotal year for Mexican federation even beyond the World Cup
MEXICO CITY -- Most countries obsess about qualifying for the World Cup. A select few, dream about winning it.
Then there's Mexico, trapped in the middle of sorts. "El quinto partido" (the fifth game) is a measure of progress, of success," said Mario Aguirre, a Mexican journalist living in Argentina. "Where I live, it's much different. The press here forget they had to wait until the very last minute to qualify, they're confident they're going to win, the people on the street echo that opinion too."
Of course, a sense of outward confidence is to be expected when you have Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero on the team. Mexico does not have players of their caliber, nor do they have an easy road ahead to complete their somewhat modest goal.
In order to reach the World Cup quarterfinals and escape the Round-of-16 purgatory that has been their home and hell since 1994, Mexico need to perform this summer against Germany, Sweden, South Korea and likely Brazil in the first knockout round.
"I'm planning to follow Mexico for four games. I'm looking at this from a journalistic standpoint, not a fan perspective. It's not optimistic or pessimistic. I feel like Mexico will face Brazil in the Round of 16 and that will be it," said Manuel Medina, a Mexican journalist living in Russia.
The view differs from the heady predictions Mexican players have offered for their upcoming World Cup campaign. "I think Mexican can win the world championship. We've been working for many years and sooner or later it'll happen," PSV attacker Hirving Lozano told Claro Sports.
Though Mexico remain an outsider for most to claim this year's World Cup, (most betting services have El Tri ranging from 66/1 to 132/1 odds to win) the measure of success will truly be getting to the quarterfinals.
Manager Juan Carlos Osorio is almost certain to leave Mexico after the tournament, and though the Colombian has won over many plaudits for his work with the team so far, he will likely elevate the caliber of clubs and national teams searching for his services if he's able to take the CONCACAF giants to their first quarterfinal since 1986.
"There are some people in Argentina who respect Mexico's chances," Aguirre said. "They talk a lot about the 2004 Copa America (a Mexico win, 1-0) and the 2006 World Cup game (Argentina won in extra time, 2-1) as proof they're a tough opponent. Others don't rate them at all, though."
A good performance in the 2018 World Cup will also likely create the type of club opportunities in Europe for players that the 2005 Under-17 World Cup win offered for the likes of Carlos Vela, Giovani dos Santos, Efrain Juarez and Jorge Hernandez (who trained with Barcelona following the tournament).
"It's important that Mexican players continue their development abroad," said Medina. In the upcoming World Cup, players such as Rodolfo Pizarro (Chivas), Erick Gutierrez (Pachuca), Edson Alvarez (Club America) and Jonathan Gonzalez (Monterrey) could find themselves scouted by clubs from the other side of the Atlantic.
Then again, there's also the very real opportunity Mexico take a step back. After six consecutive tournaments making it out of the group, El Tri could regress amidst a group including the defending World Champions, a Swedish team ranked right below them in the most recent FIFA rankings, and the always difficult South Koreans.
"There is a fear Osorio's time with the team could end on a sour note," said Medina. Indeed, against top ranked sides like Germany and Chile, Mexico has faltered rather spectacularly, losing 4-1 to the Germans in the 2017 Confederations Cup, and of course, 7-0 to Chile in the 2016 Copa America.
On the flip side, 2018 has already proven to be momentous for Mexico on the women's side. The U20 side crowned itself champions of CONCACAF, and will be headed to the World Cup in France later this year. In October, the senior side will attempt to qualify for the 2019 World Cup, drawing on a renewed roster including several players who have come to the attention of the national team thanks to the newly founded Liga MX Femenil.
Regardless of age group and gender, it's clear 2018 is shaping up to be either a very memorable year for the Mexican soccer program, or yet another one that will inevitably live on in the future with a lingering sense of disappointment.
"At home or abroad, people look at Mexico as this small team that always crumbles under pressure," said Aguirre. "Mexico has to show they can do otherwise."
Eric Gomez is an editor for ESPN's One Nación. You can follow him on Twitter: @EricGomez86.