Yesterday, as I was driving back from the restaurant where I had seen Mexico's dramatic loss to the Netherlands, I had to cope not only with my own frustration but, most importantly, with that of my six-year-old son.
This had been Mateo's first World Cup as a Mexico fan, you see.
For the first time, he had been keenly aware of what happened on the field: yelling at Chicharito, praying for Ochoa, hoping for the best, cursing the referee, counting down the minutes and then the seconds on the clock. He had worn his green jersey like a second skin, refusing to wash it after every match. "Matter of luck, dad," he told me, giving way to magical thinking the way many of us, true sports fanatics tend to do. Before the match against the Netherlands, Mateo was convinced Mexico was going to win. He had that supreme confidence of childhood. And so, when the Portuguese referee bought into Arjen Robben's histrionics and, lacking the basic moral decency to let the game play itself out, pointed to the penalty spot, my son's face just dropped. He looked at the screen in disbelief, trying to cope with the most abrupt shift of emotions he had ever experienced. Just three minutes before he had been jumping around, thinking about the next round. And now, just 180 seconds later, here he was, experiencing heartbreak. He couldn't bear to watch the screen and so, when Huntelaar scored, he turned around and hugged me. And he cried. And then cried some more. Back in the car, I used every possible way of explaining that life goes on. I told him Mexico would be back. I told him I'd take him to Russia. I told him that this has happened before. "I know it has happened before!" he screamed. "We're cursed!"
And, for that, I did not have an answer.
Mateo, you see, has a point.
Mexico's soccer history reads like a catalogue of painful defeats. Name your poison, we've taken it.
In 1986, in Monterrey, Mexico lost to Germany via the dreaded penalty shoot-outs, but not before the Colombian referee (I can't even bring myself to write his name, that Voldemort) canceled a valid goal for no reason at all. Most referees would have given that goal, especially for the host nation…but not this ref, and not for Mexico.
In 1994, Mexico again lost from the penalty spot, this time to Bulgaria. That defeat had its own set of aggravating factors. Miguel Mejía Barón, Mexico's coach, infamously decided to not make any substitutions during extra time, although the Bulgarians were so worn out by the New Jersey heat that they had repeatedly thrown out the ball on purpose just to catch their breath. Most coaches would have made the necessary changes…but not Mexico's coach.
In 1998, Mexico had Germany on its knees. We were leading 1-0 when Luis Hernandez had a golden opportunity to score again. But he became cocky (the other side of the coin of Mexico's peculiar insecurities) and failed to kill the Germans. And we know what usually happens after that: Bierhoff, Klinsmann and de vuelta a casa. Most other teams would have won that match…but not Mexico.
In 2002, after a superb group stage, Mexico faced the United States. We were so sure we were going to beat the gringos that parties were already set up all over town. But Bruce Arena had other ideas. The United States out played Mexico. But not only that: Arena proved the better tactician. Aguirre was left humiliated, taken to school by—gasp—an American coach. Frankly, most Mexican teams would have won that match…but not that Mexican team.
Then 2006 came around. Argentina knocked us out with the best goal of the tournament. Maxi Rodríguez had never scored anything like that before and would never do so again…but he did against Mexico.
In 2010, Argentina beat us again, scoring from one of the most blatant off-side positions the world had ever seen. Most linesmen would have raised their flag…but not for Mexico, he wouldn't.
And then you have Fortaleza and the match against Van Gaal's Oranje. Mexico played the perfect match for, perhaps, 75 minutes. And then, thanks to Van Gaal's guile and Mexico's slight reticence, the match started to change. Still, when the clock reached the 85th minute, I thought our luck had changed. The curse will be lifted, I thought. My son thought so as well. We all did. And then came Sneijder. And then the referee did his thing: amazingly, with only a few seconds on the clock, he killed Mexico's hopes with a penalty that oh-so-clearly wasn't. Yes: most referees…well, you get the gist.
And that was that.
So, yes: I wanted to tell my son that maybe we are cursed. I wanted to tell him that there is no rational explanation for losing like we've been losing for the past 30 years. I wanted to tell him of other sporting curses. The Bambino. The Cubs. Guttman's Benfica in Portugal. My own Cruz Azul in Mexico (that's a story for another day). Yes, I wanted to tell him: there is something bizarre going on here. I wanted to take refuge in the supernatural, in conspiracy theories, in anything but the rawness of decades of sporting failure.
And then, just as I was about to say what I wanted to say, my son interrupted me.
"You know what I want to do now?" he asked me, emerging from his tears.
"Quiero jugar futbol contigo," he said.
And so I left the curse for another day, picked a ball and played with my son.
He slept with his beloved green jersey: sweaty, sticky, stinky.
I hope he dreamed of football…