BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil – Mexico doesn’t just go into its second-round clash with the Netherlands on Sunday looking to stop the highest-scoring and most dynamic attack from the group stage of the World Cup.
It is looking to continue the “miracle.”
There really is no other word to appropriately describe the complete turnaround in fortunes that El Tri, Mexico’s national team, has experienced over the past nine months and more specifically, the past two and a half weeks.
This was a dreadful team that tormented its loyal and passionate supporters with a never-ending stream of dismal performances in CONCACAF regional qualifying, scoring just seven times and winning only twice in 10 games in a final pool that included the United States, Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras and Jamaica.
It came within a whisker of missing out on the big show altogether; only a late header from Graham Zusi of the United States against Panama lifted Mexico into fourth place in CONCACAF and lined up a playoff against New Zealand.
A grateful nation rejoiced, and a hyperactive Mexican television reporter even turned up in Kansas City to present Zusi with a bunch of gifts including a massive sombrero.
And then Mexico moved on. New Zealand was duly dispatched and El Tri could book its ticket to Brazil, albeit with understandably tempered expectations given the qualifying travails.
But instead of being a no-hoper, Mexico has been one of the better teams of the tournament, conceding a joint-low one goal in its group games, holding host nation Brazil to a scoreless draw and impressing to the point that it goes into its showdown with the rampant Dutch as a very live underdog.
“We are ready to make history,” said head coach Miguel Herrera.
So how has this miracle happened? The architect of it all seems to have been Herrera, a wonderfully quirky man who is the lowest-paid coach in the World Cup but knows how to relate to his group in a way that his predecessors never could.
Stopping Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben and company will be no easy task and the Netherlands' 10 goals in Group B were a clear signal of intent for a team that wants to at least match its run to the final in 2010.
But don’t write Mexico off. The defense is outstanding and confidence for this team hasn’t been higher in recent memory.
[Related: No fear for Mexico against Netherlands ]
History is against it; Mexico has lost in the round of 16 stage the last five World Cups. But this time it wasn’t even supposed to be here, not at the tournament, or in the knockout stage, or being talked about as a team to watch for the right reasons.
The miracle of Mexico has made its people believe. And the miracle might not be over yet.
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