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World Cup: Mexico needs a tighter focus to get to a fifth game — and beyond

It’s more a mental block than a physical one. More a lack of faith than a fait accompli.

Every four years Mexico goes to the World Cup with great expectations, advances out of its group, then packs its bags and heads home one game into the knockout round.

It was eliminated once on a penalty kick and once in a penalty-kick shootout. It lost in extra time and following overtime. It lost to the U.S. and to a future U.S. coach in Germany’s Jurgen Klinsmann.

Each time Mexico lost, in six consecutive World Cups, it came in the fourth game. So, heading into their opening game in this summer’s World Cup, against defending champion Germany on Sunday, Mexico’s players are looking far beyond the speed bump that routinely trips them up.

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When Mexican journalist David Faitelson asked Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez last month if the team can win the World Cup, Hernandez had a couple of questions of his own.

“Tell me why not?” he shot back, referencing two recent Cinderella teams. “Why can’t we be Greece in the Euros? Why can’t we be Leicester in the Premier League?”

Hernandez, the national team’s all-time scoring leader, is one of a number of players who have insisted that Mexico sells itself short by focusing solely on making it to the fifth game. Why not raise the bar a little higher and try to win the whole thing?

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“We talk about it because we want to play the fifth game — and then more,” forward Carlos Vela said last month. “It’s not only about this game. We want to have a great World Cup and if we want to have a great World Cup, we have to dream high.”

A long World Cup is certainly overdue for Mexico: In 15 previous World Cups, it has never gotten past the quarterfinals. It made it that far just twice, in 1970 and 1986, each time when the tournament was played in Mexico.

Of the eight countries that have played in that many World Cups, Mexico is the only one that hasn’t won it.

“This is a team that consistently gets on to the second round. The problem is, once they’re on to the second round, they seem to struggle,” said Herculez Gomez, who played in a World Cup with the U.S. but spent much of his club career in Mexico. “They can’t seem to get over that hump, that quinto partido that they’ve been yearning for all these years.

“This is the most talented Mexican team on paper. This team can make a run. But this team gets in its own way.”

This time, the problems started before the team even left Mexico, when photographs surfaced of what has been described as a birthday party for Hernandez that got out of control. Some media reports said as many as 30 female escorts attended the late-night event, but Hernandez denied that and insisted other claims made about the celebration were wildly overblown.

However, the distraction took on new life after the team left for Europe and midfielder Hector Herrera missed a training session to deal with family issues believed to be related to the party. Team captain Rafa Marquez also addressed the matter, reminding the players that they were role models.

This is the same Marquez who last year had his U.S. bank accounts frozen after the U.S. Treasury Department accused him of aiding a powerful Mexican drug trafficker.

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All that was before veteran defender Diego Reyes was ruled out of the World Cup after a hamstring injury.

Germany, on the other hand, comes into Sunday’s game with few distractions.

“They know the mentality they have. They have a winning mentality,” said Pavel Pardo, who appeared in two World Cups for Mexico and played parts of three seasons in Germany. “They are very focused on the game.”

That might be one reason why Germany, a four-time World Cup champion, has made it to the semifinals of the last four tournaments. Hernandez may have been thinking about that last month when he was asked another question: What does Mexico have to do to win one of its own?

“What we want to do is do everything possible to work and get things in our favor,” he said, “and deserve to win.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com | Twitter: @kbaxter11


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