Another World Cup, another set of questions as to how Mexico will progress through the round of 16. Despite El Tri’s shaky qualifying campaign and injury worries, their star has confidence.
It was 11:32 am on June 17, 2018 when an earthquake struck Mexico City. It was small and seemingly insignificant, not comparable to the devastating tremors of its past, but Aztec mythology prophesied that this world of the Fifth Sun would end in an earthquake—it always will be some Reason to worry. Shortly thereafter, seismologists a expression:
The earthquake detected in Mexico City was man-made. Possibly due to massive jumps at the Mexico goal at the World Cup.
Leave it to a man nicknamed Chucky to cause a scare.
Aftershock aside, Hirving Lozano’s 35th-minute goal against Germany in the World Cup opener in Mexico was monumental for a number of reasons. Few can say they scored their first World Cup goal on their World Cup debut, but Lozano was also a match-winner in a 1-0 win over the reigning world champions – and proved the first attack on a crumbling German facade as the team crashed out of the group stage.
“It was one of the happiest moments of my life,” says Lozano. “It was an explosion of incredible emotions. My debut at a World Cup and we won. Incredible, wonderful, beautiful.”
It could be described as a moment when the earth stood still for Mexico fans, but that clearly wasn’t the case. Videos of euphoric Mexican fans celebrating the goal thrilled the nation. Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio took a fetal position on the bench and couldn’t take the moment.
But Lozano, then only 22 years old, was amputated. The electrifying off-ball run down the left wing, the grandiose retreat of his defender, the stance in front of world goalkeeper Manuel Neuer – everything surrounding the goal was perfectly executed, as if Lozano had always anticipated this moment, and a childhood nickname stuck.
At 11, Lozano joined Pachuca’s youth academy as a brash, undersized forward who would move heaven and earth for a goal. Fame with the Mexico national team has always been his dream, but his legacy began with his penchant for pranking his academy teammates. Lozano is short and has spiky hair. He says he used to hide from his fellow Pachucas and jump out to scare them, leading them to call him Chucky, like the red-haired doll from the child’s play horror movies.
A decade later, fans from Russia to Oaxaca were chanting the nickname. “Two teammates asked if it was okay if they started calling me that, and everyone called me Chucky from then on. Now everyone only knows me as Chucky,” he says.
A year after that legendary World Cup memory, Lozano made the leap into a top-five league, leaving Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven for Serie A Napoli. In Italy, Lozano made history as the first Mexico international to play 100 games in the series A contested and became the first in the league to score. He now has 30 career goals for Napoli.
Now in Lozano’s fourth season with the club, Napoli are favorites to claim their first Serie A title since 1989-90 when Diego Maradona cheered the side on. Napoli, unbeaten in the league, go into the World Cup break eight points clear, which could make this year a memorable one for Lozano.
“This is a really exciting moment for us in Serie A and also in the Champions League,” says Lozano. “There is still a lot of road left. … But I can only hope that great things are possible.”
Lozano, now 27 and in his prime, is a hybrid of Mexico’s brightest star (16 goals and 11 assists in 60 games) and future leader (teammates Memo Ochoa and Andrés Guardado are on their fifth World Cup team since 2006). And he’s ready to turn the joy of his first world championship into an urge to succeed at his second.
“I feel older, more mature. I feel it both football-wise and personally,” says Lozano. “I want to enjoy and experience everything [the World Cup] to the fullest because the experience I had in Russia was something amazing. Hopefully we can repeat something similar if not something better.”
That “something better” is the elusive “Quinto Partido” (Spanish for fifth game). Since 1994, Mexico have emerged from the group stage at seven consecutive World Cups, only to be eliminated in the round of 16 or just before game five. El Tri only played once at the Quinto Partido, when they hosted the tournament in 1986, and that legacy has hung over the team at every World Cup since.
Some call it a curse; others, like former Mexico captain Claudio Suárez, simply describe it as a series of unfortunate events. It is clear that the round of 16 was not good for Mexico. In 1994, El Tri was eliminated on penalties by Bulgaria; In 1998 they lost a 1-0 lead against Germany with 15 minutes remaining. In 2006 they lost to Argentina in extra time and 14 Mexico were sent home after a controversial overtime penalty against the Netherlands.
But Suárez, who was Mexico’s all-time all-time leader with 177 caps until Guardado broke his record last week, said it was pressure from the coveted quinto partido that was wreaking havoc.
“You have to do everything you can to not let that pressure get into your head,” says Suárez, who will be a Fox Deportes commentator covering the tournament. “We all know who we represent: 130 million Mexicans rely on you and watch these games. It’s emotional, it’s challenging. But you have to channel that pressure into something positive to motivate yourself.”
Lozano, meanwhile, said he prefers not to breathe life into the mystique of Quinto Partido: “We all want to make it happen [to the Quinto Partido] But we have to focus on the first game. And from there we can get started.”
In Qatar, the search for the quinto partido leads through a difficult group with Poland, Lionel Messi’s Argentina (Lozano bites his lip and smiles expectantly when asked about Messi) and Saudi Arabia. “There are big teams, tough teams, that motivates me a lot,” says Lozano. “I like these challenges, I want to enjoy them.”
And if Mexico emerge from the group stage, they are likely to face defending World Cup holders France or Euro 2020 semi-finalists Denmark. As expected, the road to Quinto Partido will never be easy.
“In reality, getting to the quinto partido gets complicated,” says Suárez. “But football can create the best surprises.”
Complicated This is how the last few years under manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino can be well described. The former Barcelona and Argentina coach is the longest-serving Mexico coach in 15 years, but El Tri has failed in the last 18 months. After two massive defeats against the USA in the finals of the Nations League and the Gold Cup in the summer of 2021, World Cup qualification ended on a bumpy note. And now Mexico join Qatar last October with just eight wins from their last 21 games.
Chants of “Fuera Tata” (Tata out) have serenaded El Tri everywhere, and Martino reportedly offered his retirement in July before being persuaded to stay through the World Cup.
Suárez, who has an enduring nickname in El Emperador (The Emperor), said the same passion that gripped Mexico and rocked the earth in 2018 can often weigh heavily on Mexico on the biggest stage. It’s all part of the pressure cooker that makes up the culture surrounding El Tri.
“The World Cup is an obsession for the Mexicans,” says Suárez. “When the World Cup comes around, a lot of Mexicans who don’t really follow football come with the expectation: ‘We’ll be world champions!’ They want to win every single game. It’s great to have this positive attitude, but [for the team] It is much work.”
Lozano will have gotten used to the pressure by now. He has been the face of El Tri since the earthquake and became the most expensive Mexican transfer ever, completing the move to Napoli for an alleged fee of $46m. In Qatar, all eyes will be on Lozano as Mexico’s top attacking option, with striker Raùl Jiménez limping, Jesús “Tecatito” Corona sidelined through injury, all-time top scorer Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez left out of Martino’s squad and the rising talents Santi Giménez and Diego Lainez also ruled out.
But he has also struggled with premature injuries since Russia. Lozano, who is yet to win a trophy with Mexico’s senior team, missed Mexico’s 2019 Gold Cup triumph after tearing his MCL in the penultimate game of the Dutch season. At the 2021 Gold Cup, Lozano’s eye “exploded” – in his words – in a gruesome collision with the Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper in Mexico’s opening game. Lozano said he feared for his life as he was placed on a stretcher and fitted with a neck brace and the Mexican star missed the next month to recover.
All that lost time at major tournaments for Mexico prompted Lozano to double down on his offseason preparation in the summer ahead of arguably the biggest year of his career at Napoli and the World Cup.
“Luckily I have injuries behind me and [Napoli] gave me the confidence to play well,” says Lozano. “I feel great and it’s important to go into the World Cup in the best condition.”
As well as wearing Mexico’s iconic green jerseys, Lozano will also have his sights set on a touch of home. While Argentina and Uruguay bring around 4,000 pounds of beef to Qatar for their traditional asados at team meals, Lozano has delivery plans of his own: his family will stock suitcases with Mexican produce and ingredients he can’t get in Europe.
“It’s really, really difficult to find Mexican food or a Mexican restaurant in Naples,” says Lozano. “It’s a real fight. Every time we return to Mexico we come back with a luggage filled with stuff from home because we can’t get anything here. We fill everyone’s pockets, in-laws, friends. Just to make ends meet in Italy.”
And if all goes well, he’ll have more than just provisions in his suitcase for Italy. And if not, maybe he could at least help send the legend of the Quinto Partido home.
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