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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 July 2018

Mexico, Brazil's bogey team, looking to make it to 'the fifth game' at a World Cup for the first time in 32 years

Juan Carlos Osorio's side have a history of upsets over the five-time world champions, but also have a habit of falling at the first knockout hurdle 

Mexico midfielder Rafael Marquez, 39, competing in his fifth World Cup, is old enough to remember a famous win, back in the last century, over Brazil, in the 1999 Confederations Cup final. Yuri Cortez / AFP
Mexico midfielder Rafael Marquez, 39, competing in his fifth World Cup, is old enough to remember a famous win, back in the last century, over Brazil, in the 1999 Confederations Cup final. Yuri Cortez / AFP

Mexico have long been deemed the bogey team for Brazil. It’s not so much a long record of underdog victories as the fact the Mexicans have proved awkward on significant, showpiece occasions. There was the Olympic final in 2012; there was Fortaleza at the last World Cup. There’s more. Most of the current Brazil team are old enough to remember the shock losses in the Gold Cups of 1996 and 2003.

Mexico’s Rafa Marquez, the most evergreen footballer, at 39, still competing in this World Cup, is old enough to remember a famous win, back in the last century, very vividly. Marquez actually played in the final of the Confederations Cup, fully 19 years ago, when his country triumphed over a Brazil spearheaded by Ronaldinho. Marquez set up Mexico’s fourth goal that day, the winning goal as it turned out, in a 4-3 festival of a final.

That’s one of the many feathers in Marquez’s cap, or rather, in his sombrero. The veteran defender will hope to get some time on the pitch on Monday, as he has done in each of the victories that pushed a spirited and sometimes thrilling Mexico into the last 16. Marquez will hope those minutes are not his swansong as an international, that Mexico’s mojo has not deserted them. They lost their last fixture badly, 3-0 to Sweden last Wednesday, a result that put them in the more challenging half of the knockout phase and looked like an alarming dip after the wins over Germany and South Korea.

“We will have a plan and also a Plan B,” promised Juan Carlos Osorio, anxious to demonstrate that the initiative and zest Mexico took to the beginning of this World Cup is still there, and that the setback against Sweden merely masked it. “Brazil and Sweden are completely different propositions,” added the Mexico manager. “Brazil like to play the ball to feet. They are the best in the world but, in a one-off game, I truly believe we can beat them.”

Brazil’s Neymar, Marcelo and Thiago Silva will believe it. They collected silver medals at Wembley six summers ago, mounting the podium with long faces and surprised expressions. Brazil had gone to the London Olympics with a strong squad and high hopes. Mexico beat them 1-0, thanks to an Oribe Peralta goal. Peralta will be in Samara, though probably on Mexico’s bench, alongside Javier Aquino and Raul Jimenez, fellow gold-medallists from London. Hector Herrera, who played in the Wembley shock, will start in midfield.

Guillermo Ochoa will be in goal, hoping to stir memories of perhaps his finest 90 minutes. That was in Fortaleza four years ago, a group-stage match, when Brazil, the hosts, came to the north-east of their country keen to put on show. Ochoa was an octopus that day, Mexico held Neymar and company to a 0-0 draw, and one save in particular, from Neymar, drew comparisons with the so-called Save of The Century - that’s the last century - by England’s Gordon Banks against Brazil’s Pele at the 1970 World Cup.

Ochoa has had quite a time of it since. He continued to star for his country in Brazil four years ago, as Mexico took their customary journey to the last 16 but no further. His club career would be strewn with hazards, though. He has suffered two relegations in the past five summers, with clubs in France and Spain.

Immediately after his breakout World Cup, Ochoa joined Malaga, upwardly mobile in the Spanish top flight at the time. The move turned into a personal nightmare. He waited almost two years to play his first Primera Liga match, sitting on the bench for 64 games before he was given the gloves for a league outing.

He lost his place in the national team, naturally, and although a move to Granada gave him first-team football it meant he swapped inactivity for too much action. Ochoa set a 21st century record in La Liga for goals conceded as Granada plunged towards relegation in 2016/17. It should be noted he was also voted their player of the season.

Over the past year, he found some club stability, at Standard Liege in Belgium, and won back his place with the Mexico team. He looks unchanged from the magician who defied Brazil four years ago, with his mop of curly hair, kept off his face with a broad bandana. His compatriots want him to be their lucky charm again in Samara. Mexicans long for what they call "the fifth game" in a World Cup; they are tired of only reaching the first stage of the knockouts. They have done that for the last six tournaments, and not reached a quarter-final for 32 years.

INTERACTIVE: World Cup wall chart

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