Mexico’s long run of last-16 World Cup exits came to an end on an odd night of bizarre excitement as Group C came to a head.
Well that was fun, wasn’t it?
It’s saying something – and much of it not particularly complimentary about Poland’s performance – that Argentina putting their dramatic matchday one wobble emphatically behind them to top the group was quickly reduced to a footnote in a deliriously thrilling and often bizarre Group C denouement.
We concede that “flicking between two games in the final minutes to see if there’s been any yellow cards” wasn’t something we particularly considered when bemoaning the watered-down group format that awaits us at the next World Cup but add it to the list now. This wasn’t always, or even that often, about great football but it was delirious entertainment. That this level of intrigue and excitement was all for nothing more significant than discovering whether it would be Poland or Mexico who earned the right to be swept aside by France in the last 16 only makes it better.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back a bit and remind ourselves how we got here. There must be words of praise here for Saudi Arabia, who ended up bottom of Group C but did so, so much to make it the most compelling group of the lot even if the final analysis – Argentina top with not much between Poland and Mexico for second – was eminently predictable.
The Saudis’ absurd win over Argentina smashed the group wide open, but in the end their role in the even more absurd conclusion was as disruptor rather than primary combatant. At 2-0 down to a previously sleepy but suddenly very awake and gloriously alive Mexico, their own race was run. But they still had a role to play. Across Qatar, Argentina were 2-0 up against a near-comatose Poland. At that point there was nothing whatsoever to separate Mexico and Poland in second place behind Argentina. Both had four points. Both had a level goal difference. Both had scored two goals. Poland were going through because they had received fewer yellow cards than the Mexicans. Think of that.
We were approaching a point where a match report with the headline “Last-gasp Poland yellow card sends Mexico through to last 16” was tantalisingly possible and I think we can all agree that would have been tremendous.
Apparently fully aware of the bizarre yet very real situation unfolding, Poland’s approach to the last 30 or so minutes of their game was grimly fascinating. They had two options. Having long since entirely eschewed the maverick and absurd Option A (“What if we try to maybe score a goal of our own?”) they were fully reliant on Option B, which required threading the needle of preventing a Lionel Messi-conducted Argentina from scoring but also not picking up yellow cards in the process. And all while also hoping for the best with regard to Mexico adding to their own tally (goal tally, that is, not bookings).
It would be fair to describe the extreme passivity that ensued as the most high-risk but low-activity gamble we think we’ve ever seen in football. We absolutely adored it. It’s hard to think of a more shithouse way of reaching the last 16, and that it came at the expense of Mexico – the shithouse’s shithouse when it comes to qualifying for the last 16 come hell or high water – adds another thread to this intricate tapestry of nonsense.
That Poland will clearly have to be far better and more proactive than this to have any hope against France appears self-evident. That they will be unable to do so seems equally clear. That this all means they probably end up somehow winning on penalties against France before knocking England out in the quarters also seems entirely plausible in the wake of tonight’s absurdity.
For Mexico, this marks the end of an era. After seven straight last-16 exits they’ve gone out even earlier by the barest of margins. While the yellow-card rule wasn’t ultimately required, that’s a mere technicality. It was the yellows that knocked them out; had they been ahead on disciplinary countback they would not have been pouring forward to create the space that gave Saudi Arabia their consolation.
Mexico were undeniably poor in their first two games but in the end were, to all intents, eliminated from the World Cup because they got more yellow cards over three games than another team. It seems a ludicrous way to decide matters and one that leaves you certain there must be a better way than that yet not quite certain precisely what that better way is. Mario Kart battle mode, maybe? All the grounds have big screens, these days.
It was exciting, though, and entirely fitting that the last four minutes of the game ended up being simulcast on both BBC One and BBC Two, a spur-of-the-moment broadcasting decision the inherent correctness of which would take quite some explaining to anyone who wasn’t watching. “So at the moment Mexico have had two more yellow cards than Poland… no, they’re not playing Poland, they’re playing Saudi Arabia. Poland have finished their game and are all huddled around somebody’s phone watching this like us… No I don’t know whether they’re watching it on BBC One or BBC Two…”
What that Saudi consolation goal did do, though, was reveal that Mexico had in fact already missed a trick.
While Saudi Arabia’s goal in the fourth of seven added minutes was initially heralded as the one that sealed it for Poland, this wasn’t actually true. Another Mexico goal at that stage would still have changed everything again; a 3-1 win for Mexico would have put them above Poland on goals scored. And given that therefore a 3-1 win was of precisely the same value to Mexico as a 3-0 win, were they in fact too cautious in the closing moments? Two late corners came and went without Guillermo Ochoa venturing forward despite the fact that doing so was quite literally risk-free. Conceding a goal meant absolutely nothing to Mexico’s chances – either way they had to score a third goal once the Poland-Argentina result was confirmed. It was a goal that genuinely merited an “In many ways, Clive, that hasn’t changed the Mexicans’ task this evening.”
Now the answer to that question is probably that, like us, they didn’t really think about it in the heat of the moment and only worked it all out several minutes later. But it’s not professional international football teams’ job to be as confused as we are. Tonight always had the potential to reach such an absurdly tight conclusion, and the teams involved should have been on top of all these scenarios and permutations.
Poland, for all the many maddening faults of their luck-riding 90-minute passivity, understood the assignment. They did what they had to do by doing nothing at all.