DOHA, Qatar — The boisterous singing began 45 whole minutes before kickoff, drowning out the stadium emcee. In fact, it began in downtown Doha hours earlier, then continued on the metro’s gold line, into the plaza surrounding Stadium 974, and eventually into the arena. Mexican fans brought it here, to the World Cup, from halfway around the world. To Tuesday’s opener against Poland, they brought pasión y orgullo, and outrageous green outfits, and horns, and noise, and hope.
And their team, outside of one herculean goalkeeper, let them down.
Mexico came to Qatar with energy, shrugging off pessimism, and surrounded by expectant roars. Memo Ochoa, at his record-tying fifth World Cup, amplified those roars when he palmed away Robert Lewandowski’s second-half penalty. His name reverberated for a full minute around this temporary stadium built on shipping containers. His teammates later called him a “hero.” An ocean and a continent away, a nation of 130 million hailed his legend.
Ochoa saves Lewandowski's penalty 😱pic.twitter.com/pdwNj4gIZo
— Yahoo Soccer (@FCYahoo) November 22, 2022
But the players in front of him?
They endeavored, and fed off the passion swirling around them, but couldn’t convert it into goals, and settled for a 0-0 draw.
They “dominated, and dominated,” as Mexican reporters bemoaned postgame, but lacked composure and quality in front of goal — and that, precisely, was the other side of a double-edged sword that sprung out of this cauldron of intensity.
Their problem, midfielder Charley Rodriguez said in Spanish, was their “calm at the final moment, the final pass, the final decision.” And this “tranquility,” he said, “is difficult to have in a World Cup.”
But the same maniacal noise that sent their soccer brains into overdrive was their fuel. The atmosphere, multiple journalists who cover El Tri said, was the best they’d ever seen, and it was one for which head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino had waited four years.
“And that is a source of excitement for everyone,” Martino said through a translator. “That's what we really need at a World Cup like this one.”
Because it’s a stark departure from what had trailed this Mexico team to Qatar.
Ole, ole ole ole! Memo, Memo! pic.twitter.com/H2asvRyrWW
— Henry Bushnell (@HenryBushnell) November 22, 2022
Tata Martino hears it from the crowd
The one exception to the positivity were the whistles and boos that greeted Martino’s name Tuesday night. For months, they’ve followed him wherever he’s gone, and have rubbed off on the atmosphere around the team. It has stoked negative media coverage, which in turn stokes further fan unrest, and sustains a vicious cycle that was spinning as fast as ever as Mexico prepped for this World Cup.
Ochoa hit out at it on Monday, one day before the opener. He hit out at clickbait criticism. "It has turned into a show,” he said. “We don't even talk about the sport anymore."
When Martino stepped to a podium for his pre-match news conference, the show continued. ESPN's Rafael Ramos verbally jousted with him, doing more debating and criticizing than question-asking. A World Cup staffer eventually had to take the microphone away from Ramos.
There was precious little discussion of Tuesday’s opener at either news conference, which prompted fears that the toxicity would mar it. But when it was finally time for the soccer to begin, for the charge toward an elusive fifth game to commence, the circus wilted into the background.
Because, as Martino said postgame, "it's bigger than me. The most important thing is the national team you support.” On Tuesday, some 35,000 fans “gave a clear message.”
Mexican fans deliver, El Tri doesn't
They overpowered the stadium’s loudspeaker system all evening. They drowned out Poland’s lineup. Their noise crescendoed, as one, up through kickoff, and it never really relented. They booed every Lewandowski touch. They oléd every Mexico pass for a while. They either stood or sat on the edges of their seats, waiting to erupt. And they did, by normal soccer fan standards, at even the slightest hint of an opening.
They clenched their fists and prepared to thrust them skyward when Hirving “Chucky” Lozano set up an early chance.
They rose in anticipation when Jesus Gallardo sprinted in behind on an overlap, and nearly latched onto a chipped through-ball.
They chanted “si se puede,” yes you can, and so much more.
Mexico’s play on the field, at times, elicited groans. But the fans shoved aside any looming pessimism. Wholeheartedly, perhaps irrationally, they ignored the fact that their team hadn’t been, and perhaps isn’t, all that good.
They chanted for Chucky, and for Memo, and for something, anything, of note.
They tried to speak — to sing, to bellow — a goal into existence.
But it never came, and in stoppage time, the relentless noise finally began to fizzle. Fans fiddled with their sombreros and with the tricolor flags draped over their shoulders. And at the final whistle, disappointment replaced the din.
This, after all, had been an opportunity, a golden one, after Saudi Arabia’s upset of Argentina earlier Tuesday in Group C. Mexico failed to take it. And they will head into a Saturday showdown with those Argentines in all-too-desperate need of at least a point.