When the final whistle sounded, defender Hugo Ayala dropped to his knees at midfield and prayed. A few feet away two other Mexican players tumbled to the turf in anger, disbelief and exhaustion; at the edge of the penalty area Miguel Layun sat on the grass, pulled his knees to his chest and sobbed.
Mexico’s World Cup, which had started with uncommon promise, ended Monday the same way the previous six did: with a loss in the Round of 16, this one coming to Brazil 2-0.
“We have to think about what happened in this World Cup. We have to think about what keeps going wrong that we keep getting eliminated in the same round,” said midfielder Andres Guardado who, at 31, was playing his third and possibly last World Cup.
“It was my dream, for the team and for an entire country,” added Layun, 30. “We wanted to play more games.”
Brazil prevented that, with Neymar scoring a goal in the opening minutes of the second half and setting up another by Roberto Firmino in the game’s final minutes. If Neymar was the difference in the game, though, there was no difference in the outcome for Mexico: In every World Cup since 1994 it has advanced to the second round and each time it has lost the first game once it got there.
It lost to the Netherlands on a phantom foul and to Bulgaria on penalty kicks. It lost twice to Argentina, once in overtime and once in a blowout. The opponents, scores and circumstances have changed; the results have not.
Mexico’s long-suffering fans have even come up with a fatalistic slogan to acknowledge that reality. Jugamos como nunca, perdimos como siempre.
We played like never before but we lost like always.
That was perhaps truer this year than in the six previous World Cups. Mexico seemed unstoppable after opening the tournament with wins over reigning champion Germany and a hard-working South Korean team. With just a point in its final first-round game with Sweden, Mexico would win the group and be off to the softer side of the World Cup bracket.
Instead it lost, and that may have sealed Mexico’s fate. Rather than playing Switzerland in the second round it got five-time champion Brazil, a team it has never beaten — never even scored upon — in the World Cup.
And in a tournament full of upsets and surprises, Brazil is beginning to stamp itself as the dominant team. It is tied for the World Cup lead in shots and is second in shots on goal. On the other end its keeper, Alisson, has had to make just four saves in posting three straight shutouts.
“I consider the team’s strongest characteristic its balance,” said Brazilian coach Tite, whose squad is going to the quarterfinals for a seventh straight World Cup.
Mexican coach Juan Carlos Osorio had a slightly different take on Brazil’s style of play, blaming the team’s penchant for theatrical dives and exaggerating injuries with disrupting the flow of Monday’s game and taking his team out of its rhythm.
“It’s an embarrassment for soccer that so much time was wasted on one player,” Osorio said in Spanish, his criticism directed at Neymar, although he pointedly refused to use the Brazilian’s name.
“The officiating was very biased and the players got tired of that,” he continued. “It’s not a good example for soccer, and for the world of soccer, for all the kids playing. This should be a sport of ability, of determination, a game of men, not of so much clowning.”
The Mexicans were especially angered by a delay midway through the second half when Neymar, who has drawn more fouls, 23, than any other player in the tournament, had his ankle stepped on by Layun. With Brazil protecting a 1-0 lead in sweltering conditions, Neymar writhed on the ground, causing a four-minute stoppage in play.
Once his teammates were sufficiently rested, Neymar hopped up and trotted away.
“I told him [Neymar] that he is too good of a player to be doing what he was doing,” Mexico’s Carlos Salcedo said. “It’s sad. That is why Messi is who he is. People kick him and he keeps going; he doesn’t fall for fouls that don’t exist.
“At the end it is his game… but it is embarrassing sometimes.”
Neymar gave Brazil the only goal it would need in the 51st minute, starting the scoring sequence by walking the ball across the top of the 18-yard box before sliding it to Willian with a back-heel pass. The Chelsea midfielder then brought the ball into the area on the left side and sent a low cross past Layun to the front of the goal for a sliding Gabriel Jesus.
Jesus just missed getting a foot on it, but Neymar, sliding in tandem just behind him, didn’t miss, poking the ball with his right foot.
Carlos Vela nearly got Mexico back in the game nine minutes later, bending a left-footed shot toward the crossbar. But Alisson lifted it over the goal for his only save of the game.
Firmino, a second-half substitute who had come on just two minutes earlier, tacked on an insurance goal in the 88th minute, sealing Mexico’s fate.
“We leave very sad because we did a lot of good things,” Salcedo said. “We did some things right and some that didn’t go the way we wanted.”
For a seventh straight tournament, Mexico’s World Cup didn’t go the way they wanted.