Carlos Hermosillo played on the last Mexican team to reach the World Cup quarterfinals and he sees some similarities between that squad and the one that opened this summer’s tournament by upsetting defending champion Germany.
“They want to make soccer history,” Hermosillo, once Mexico’s all-time scoring leader, said Thursday. “But they have to approach this game by game. They played Germany and they have to realize the most important game is the one coming up, against Korea.”
That match is Saturday in Rostov-on-Don, a port city about 600 miles south of Moscow. A win and Mexico’s passage to the knockout round of a seventh consecutive World Cup is virtually assured. A loss and Mexico will go into its final group-stage game with Sweden next week facing elimination.
That makes the South Korea game a huge one in terms of both momentum and mindset.
“They have the mentality to go to the final. I’m sure of this,” Hermosillo, in Russia as part of the Telemundo broadcast team, said in Spanish. “[But] you can’t think about the final if you don’t win your other games first.
“This journey, for me, is very important to generate a lot of confidence.”
Confidence isn’t an issue with this Mexican team, perhaps the most talented in the country’s history. The core of its roster has already combined to win a U-17 world championship and an Olympic gold medal, the two biggest prizes Mexico has captured on the international stage.
Those are age-group titles though. On the senior level, the last time Mexico made it past the round of 16 in a World Cup, in 1986, Hermosillo was a 21-year-old playing in his first major international tournament and 19 of the players on the current national team had yet to be born. One of Hermosillo’s teammates, Javier Hernandez, would go on to have a son that would take his father’s name — and nickname — and eventually pass Hermosillo to become the most prolific goal-scorer in Mexican history.
As a result, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez knows the history and has heard the stories. And like Hermosillo, he’s preaching perspective.
“Our objective is in the long term,” he said. “We have to stay calm. If we want to get to the final, we have to go step by step.
“[Beating] Germany is great. But it is worthless if you lose against Korea and Sweden.”
History is not on Mexico’s side, though, because it has not won back-to-back matches at a World Cup since 2002, when it beat Croatia and Ecuador in the first two group matches. Another historical constant is that Mexico tends to play well against big teams such as Germany, ranked No. 1 in the world, while losing focus and struggling against lesser teams such as South Korea, which is ranked 57th.
"It's time for Mexico to show that we can take the initiative," coach Juan Carlos Osorio said. "There is a big difference between playing against Germany or [another] powerhouse. We are, supposedly, superior to our opponents. We have to impose our [own] conditions."
Osorio had more than six months to prepare for Germany, and it showed. He found a flaw in Germany’s style of play and capitalized on it, using Mexico’s superior speed to exploit a plodding defense and find a first-half goal. Then, in the second half, Guillermo Ochoa was spectacular in goal, finishing with nine saves to preserve one of the biggest wins by a Mexico team in at least a generation.
Afterward, some of the players wept on the field.
South Korea will present different challenges. And this time they’ll be the team playing to make a statement because after losing to Sweden in its opener, South Korea’s tournament will end with another loss to Mexico.
“We know we have to produce results that can [disprove] people’s predictions,” midfielder Jung Woo-young told reporters. “We’re not thinking about whether we are less talented or not a better team [than] Mexico.
“We just think about how we can stop Mexico from playing their style of game.”
Mexico, meanwhile, has to stop thinking about Germany and a game it has already played and focus on South Korea and the game ahead.