SANTA CLARA, Calif. — For 45 minutes it was nearly perfect. In that same time frame it all collapsed.
All the good Mexico did in the first half against Colombia on Tuesday, arguably their best display of fútbol in a long time, was completely wiped as they conceded the two-goal lead and ended up losing 3-2 at Levi's Stadium.
World Cup send-off games are supposed to accomplish two things: build hype and give players some confidence for what's ahead. It seemed like El Tri was checking all those boxes until Colombia made halftime subs that completely changed the dynamic of the game. Instead of a celebratory night, it was more of the same for Mexican fans who have grown wary of what their team can, or rather can't, accomplish.
The World Cup is 53 days away, and after these latest pair of games, Mexico is dealing with recurring issues that have confidence wavering. Sure, they beat Peru 1-0 on Saturday at the Rose Bowl, but even that was an unconvincing performance flipped on its head when Hirving Lozano found the back of the net in the 85th minute. Otherwise there wasn’t much to take away from that game besides what we already knew: Mexico lacks creativity in the final third and struggles to score.
Tuesday in the Bay Area, the first half was the total opposite of that. Mexico looked aggressive, making direct runs into the box and generating offense. Defensively they were stifling world class players like Liverpool’s Luis Diaz and Juventus’ Juan Cuadrado. It was the game Gerardo “Tata” Martino needed to basically tell everyone to chill out.
But that was short-lived as Colombia substitute Luis Sinisterra started the half with a quick goal and netted the equalizer 3 minutes later. Wilmar Barrios buried the winning goal off a sensational volley from outside the box in the 68th minute.
“When the opponent's No. 9 plays for Eintracht Frankfurt, their winger for Liverpool and the fullback for Juventus, obviously there’s going to be a point in the game they’re going to impose their level,” said Martino. “Those are the moments we have to sustain our composure, order and not commit mistakes.”
On paper, Qatar-bound Mexico lost to a team that will not be at the World Cup. A very good one at that, but that's not the focus for El Tri.
It’s about trying to find a balance they’ve been seeking for too long. And as time has passed, tournaments lost (specifically to the rival United States), Mexico seemingly hasn’t improved enough in relation to competing for a World Cup. Much of that, rightfully so or not, falls on Martino. The relationship has been souring and this loss added another element to it.
After Saturday’s win against Peru, Tata was all smiles and even making jokes in his postgame news conference. Tuesday’s tone was much different, argumentative and annoyed as he threw not-so-subliminal messages at former Mexican players converted into media members who constantly criticize. He also touched on problems with structure in Liga MX and how that affects the national team pool and players. While those are valid points, Martino looks to air out his many annoyances any chance he gets. Saturday he said he was happy and motivated for what’s ahead, but that’s far from the feeling of the fans.
That undeniable friction is reaching the breaking point.
“When a team doesn’t win, the outside perception is totally distinct,” Martino said.
Tata can poke at the media all he wants, and he’s been doing it for some time now, but the only way to shift the narrative is winning. He angrily snapped back at a reporter when asked about striker Henry Martin, saying that the media was infatuated with judging a No. 9 solely on scoring goals.
That, of course, happens to be one of the main concerns surrounding El Tri.
Much of that external noise he references was generated by his unwillingness to consider Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Mexico’s all-time leading scorer, as an option for this roster. It’s clear that ship has sailed, despite Hernandez scoring 10 goals in his last 10 games for the LA Galaxy, including a brace just a few hundred miles north of the Rose Bowl while Mexico’s offense looked stagnant in that win against Peru.
Whether or not Chicharito would benefit El Tri is a moot point now, but it's the manner in which Tata has treated that situation, among many other things, that continues adding fuel to this fire.
Mexico has two remaining exhibition matches (Sweden and Iraq) before its World Cup opener on Nov. 22 versus Poland. For the most part the roster is pretty defined. Last-minute decisions will be made on injured stars Raul Jimenez and Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, both vital pieces that can give this squad a needed boost if they were to make the list, although the outlook doesn’t look great.
Regardless, Martino is leading a team into Qatar with hopes of reaching that "quinto partido" that has haunted Mexico for far too long. That would mean reaching the quarterfinals for the first time since 1986. Since then they have been eliminated in the Round of 16 in seven straight World Cups.
But first they have to worry about Poland, Argentina and Saudi Arabia before thinking about anything else. The results of those games, good or bad, will get picked apart as they typically do, with Martino probably receiving most of the criticism.
Mexican fans, meanwhile, continue to embrace the "whatever happens, happens" mentality for the World Cup, because in a way they kind of already know their team's fate: both for the tournament and the future, too.
Time is running out and the “Fuera Tata” noise is only getting louder.