It’s been the best of years; it’s been the worst of years. Although mostly for El Tri, it’s been the worst.
The Mexican national soccer team faces off against New Zealand on Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. EST at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, the first of two matches that will determine which squad joins the beach party at the World Cup in Brazil next summer.
For the perennial North American football power, it has been a rollercoaster qualification process, in which the once-formidable fortress of the Azteca (sitting all of 7,200 feet above sea level) has proved to be anything but. Since hexagonal play began in February, El Tri has gone from the lows to the highs and bottomed out again, in the end narrowly edging Panama for fourth place in CONCACAF behind Costa Rica, Honduras, and, of course, the USA.
But if there’s one thing that doesn’t waver, it’s Mexicans’ passion for their national team. Here is a short course in some of the team’s brightest moments, and some of its darkest hours.
High: Jan. 23, 1923
El Tri wins its first international match, 3-2. Okay, it’s at home, and it was against Guatemala – a nation that still hasn’t qualified for a World Cup in the 86 years since.
Low: July 13-19, 1930
Mexico qualifies for the first World Cup Final, held in Uruguay, and is thrashed in three games by France (4-1), Chile (3-0) and Argentina (6-3). El Tri’s first goal was scored by Juan Carreño Lara, who also scored the country’s first Olympic goal in 1928.
High: June 7, 1962
Mexico defeats Czechoslovakia, 3-1, for its first World Cup match victory. El Tri’s record to that point in Cup play was 0 - 12 - 1, with the one point having come in a 1958 tie with Wales. The win is meaningless, as both Brazil and Spain have already qualified from the group.
High: June 11, 1970
As host of the World Cup, Mexico had posted relatively tepid results – a 0-0 tie against the Soviet Union and a 4-0 drubbing of El Salvador. Their third match, against Belgium, would see the winner through to the quarterfinal. Gustavo Peña Velazco, a defender who scored all of three goals in 82 international appearances, calmly cashed in a penalty kick in the 14th minute and Mexico held on for the victory.
Low: Dec. 14, 1973
At the CONCACAF championship in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, which was doubling as World Cup qualification, Mexico trailed Haiti by 4 points with two games left. Desperately needing a win, El Tri collapsed instead, losing to unheralded Trinidad and Tobago, 4-0. There were a few injuries and 14 shots struck the crossbar and posts, enough that the Mexican coach claimed afterward that the Trinidadians used voodoo to defeat them. Mexico stayed home from the World Cup for the first time in 40 years.
High: June 15, 1986
El Tri goes up on Bulgaria in the Round of 16 at the World Cup, 1-0, on a spectacular left-footed scissor kick by Manuel Negrete.
Low: June 19, 1988
FIFA determines that Mexico fielded four over-aged players on its national youth squads and banned the country from the 1988 Olympics and 1990 World Cup competitions. It is during these years that the U.S. begins to emerge as El Tri’s principal CONCACAF rival.
Low: July 5, 1994
At Giants Stadium in New Jersey, Mexico played Bulgary to a 1-1 tie in the Round of 16 of the World Cup. The Mexicans missed four penalty kicks in the ensuing shootout and lost 1-1 (4-1).
High/low: June 24, 2006
One of the greatest World Cup matches ever takes place between Mexico and Argentina. After trading first-half goals, the back-and-forth affair is decided in injury time by a spectacular goal by Argentina’s Maxi Hernández. Heartbreak, to be sure, but such beautiful heartbreak.
High: Aug. 12, 2009
After a 2-0 World Cup qualifying loss to the U.S. in Columbus, Ohio, in February, Mexico coach Paco Ramírez slapped American defender Frankie Hedjuk, lending the summer rematch more than the usual amount of rancor between the two squads. Locked in a 1-1 tie, Miguel Sabah hit the back of the goal in the 81st minute for an emotional victory.
High: Aug. 11, 2012
Mexico defeats Brazil, 2-1, to win the Olympic gold medal, with Oribe Peralta scoring both of El Tri’s goals. Technically, not the national team, because of the Olympic age requirements, but coupled with other successful outings by Mexico’s youth teams, a promise of national squad excellence for years to come.
Low: Sept. 6-10, 2013
Back to back World Cup qualifying losses to Honduras, 2-1 at home, and the U.S., 2-0 in El Tri’s now-familiar crucible of Columbus, leave Mexico in fifth place in the hexagonal standings, on the verge of being shut out of even a home-and-away series against Oceania qualifier, New Zealand.
High: Oct. 11, 2013
In a must-win, El Tri triumphed over Panama, 2-1 at Estadio Azteca, when little-heralded Club América striker, Raúl Jiménez, scored in the 85th minute on a “chilena” – a behind-the-back bicycle kick – that threw the entire nation into a frenzy.
Low: Oct. 15, 2013
A 2-1 loss to Costa Rica, coupled with Panama’s 2-1 lead over the U.S. in the waning minutes, was leaving Mexico out of the World Cup next year. Miraculously, the U.S. scored twice during injury time. Mexico’s papers published thank you notes to their rivals.