A key moment occurred in the middle of the 1999 Copa América: Brazil had a 2-1 advantage on the scoreboard; however, Mexico did not stop pressing. And while the clock ran, the coaching staff and the substitutes of the Brazilian team stood up, begging the referee to blow the final whistle.
Mexicans couldn’t believe what their eyes saw. Brazil was afraid of them! Mexico bore the defeat, although it gained a lot of self-respect. Throughout the history of football, especially in that 1970 World Cup played in their country, Mexicans looked to Brazilian football as an almost untouchable reference. And now Mexico was able to slap the gods.
The population of Mexico is a little more than half that of Brazil; however, it is more than two and a half times higher than that of Argentina. A clash between Mexico and Brazil has the potential to become the Latin American superclassic and this Tuesday’s Olympic semifinal will be one more step on that path.
The tendency was always for Brazilians to look down on Mexicans, making unfavorable comparisons due to the lesser soccer tradition of the Aztecs. At the 2005 U-17 World Cup, several members of the Brazilian team’s coaching staff congratulated each other after a thrilling 4-3 victory over Turkey in the semi-finals.
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“We just beat the second best squad in the tournament,” a member of the Brazilian delegation told me. It was an analysis that belittled the obvious fact that, that same day, Mexico won 4-0 in their respective semi-final bracket. When both dozen met in the final, it was a comfortable victory for figures such as Giovani Dos Santos and Carlos Vela, beating players of the stature of Marcelo and Anderson. Mexico won 3-0 and had a world title under its belt.
The honors continue to belong to Brazil in the tournament that really matters: the World Cup for seniors. Pelé’s goal against Mexico in 1962 may be “O Rei’s” best goal in the competition: a master class of skills, balance and power.
More recently, Brazil won 2-0 when the two teams collided in the second round of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The goalless draw between the two teams in the group stage four years earlier is just as important. Brazil got off to an awkward start, with a controversial win over Croatia in their World Cup debut in their own backyard. The disparate performance could be attributed to the nerves of the first night. The second game showed the true Brazilian team in a forceful way.
But Mexico (with a goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa in his best form) was able to keep Scratch at bay. The whispers did not stop running through the press box: Is that all that Brazil has? Doubts began to seize concentration. It seems valid to argue that the drop in level that resulted in that extraordinary 7-1 capitulation in the semifinals against Germany began a couple of weeks earlier in the match against the Mexicans.
And, of course, Mexico can cheer up as it remembers the final of the London Olympics nine years ago, when they rushed out to establish an advantage that Brazil could never overcome. Now Mexico has its own tradition of winning titles against Brazil. So there is no reason to be intimidated with a view to Tuesday’s semi-final. Ochoa himself is present to provide the last defensive line, against a Brazilian team that struggles to regain the physical fitness of its center-forward Matheus Cunha so that he can play the game.
Richarlison has scored most of the goals for Brazil, although Cunha has taken on similar importance, combining well and providing a solid base for attack with his return to peak goalscoring level, which could be very interesting for the senior squad. The Everton man scored the only goal in the quarter-final clash against Egypt, although he later exited the match after suffering a muscle problem. Brazil will miss you if you are absent, or even if you don’t show your best form.
But it is on the other side of the court where the situation arouses the most interest. With 14 goals in their four encounters, Mexico has far more gunpowder than Brazil’s previous opponents in the Olympic tournament. Sevilla center-back Diego Carlos has been surprised by the weakness shown when defending against centers; however, he exudes elegance on the court. His partner Nino can be surprised by the speed, and the winger who plays on that side of the field is Daniel Alves, always better known for his offensive ability and intelligence than for the defensive aspect of his game.
This is an experienced Mexican team: most of its members have minutes with the national senior team. They also share a scoring nose: seven of their players have converted in the competition. With their play in midfield and speed through the wings, Mexico will raise serious questions regarding the Brazilian defense.
The short-term unknown is simple: which of these teams will play the gold medal game this Saturday? The long-term question is more interesting: at what level will this encounter leave Brazil-Mexico on its way to becoming one of the great Latin American soccer rivalries?