In 2005 I was doing my Erasmus scholarship in Lille, in the north of France. That was the first time I had the chance to really be in an international atmosphere.
I became very good friends with a Mexican girl and, a year later, she suggested I should visit her country. I followed her advice and, as she originally was a Regiomontana – born and raised in Monterrey – that was my first stop. The first thing they asked me after I stepped foot in the airport was: Tigres or Rayados? I had no idea what they were talking about, but in the following days many more people asked me the same question.
Those were the indeed two teams of the city, Tigres UANL and CF Monterrey, the protagonists of an extremely competitive derby, one of the roughest in Latin America. I had the chance to visit their stadiums in the following days and, during my two-month trip, I could feel how every single corner of the country breathed, lived, played and loved football.
In such a massive country, featuring 125 million inhabitants, many indigenous tribes, and multiple languages, the national team El Tri is probably the only time and reason when all Mexicans come together as one. Mexico are one of the nations that have participated more times in a World Cup, perhaps due to their qualification zone CONCACAF being not as competitive as the South American.
Fast-forward to when I was working in a Kibbutz in the South of Israel. The guys living next to me once knocked at my door and told me: “Come on Carlos, let’s play football.” It was 10 PM but it didn´t matter, that was the best time to play in Yotvata, since it was in the middle of the Negev desert. Since then, playing every night before sleeping became a tradition, and as we chatted, they explained they were Korean ex-marines. I could see in our daily life important was discipline for them. When I read more about them, I found out that the Korean Marines were considered among the toughest military corps worldwide.
In 2011, they also invited me to travel around their country with them. On my first day in Seoul, I noticed that whenever we got into a coffee shop, a restaurant, or a bar…People always greeted them, and talked to them with respect. Why is that, I asked?
“It’s because of the t-shirt I’m wearing,” one of them replied. “It belongs to the Marine Corps, and people just want to show respect and gratitude for us.” Since the Country has been divided in two since 1948 on the 38th Parallel Line, the army became an essential part of their society.
The next day, they invited me to watch a FC Seoul game in the beautiful Sangam Stadium, which was built for the 2002 World Cup. That was my first time watching live Asian football, and the experience was very satisfactory, as the level of the K-League has been increasing year after year.
These and many more memories came back to my mind today as I watched the game between South Korea and Mexico in the Rostov Arena. During their National Anthem, many of the Korean players were doing the military salute. For them, being part of the national team is a great honor, and they defend that jersey with pride.
During the first minutes of the match, at least three different Korean players went for a foul on Hirving Lozano: It was definitely part of a strategy to intimidate the match winner of Mexico’s previous game with Germany. But the Mexican kept control of the ball, encouraged by the most numerous crowd in the whole tournament – only surpassed by the local Russians.
In the 11th minute, El Chicharito Javier Hernández, the top Mexican scorer with 49 goals – scared the Koreans with a header, showing his talent for high balls despite being only 173 cms tall. But right after that, Korea made themselves dangerous in turn, with a counterattack saved right by Chucky Lozano: Since playing in the Eredivise, the PSV Eindhoven’s midfielder has improved a lot also in the defensive side. On top of that, this Mexican team is mainly composed by the Olympic Champions in London 2012, which gives them cohesion and extra confidence.
Heung-Ming Son, the most representative player from Korea, had three good chances to score, but it seemed it was not the right day for him. A header from a corner kick by their captain Ki Sung-Yueng, who plays in the UK with Swansea City, had the same outcome.
Balance was broken in the 23rd minute, when Jang Hyun-Soo committed a penalty foul, which Carlos Vela easily turned into Mexico’s lead from the spot. What a great player could have Vela been, if only he had more defensive discipline. Nevertheless, he did leave football fans some magic moments, especially during this best years at Real Sociedad.
A great shot by Miguel Layun was beautifully saved by Jo Hyeon-Woo, the 26-year-old goalkeeper who has been the sensation of his team. Initially a third choice, he managed to impress coach Shin Tae-Yong so much, that he was promoted to starter right in the latest weeks.
But Mexican Coach Juan Carlos Osorio still had many resources. The story of this Colombian manager is very peculiar, as he had to retire from football early in his career due to an injury, and eventually chose to study Human Performance Sciences in the U.S.A. After joining Manchester City as a physical trainer, he decided to become a football coach.
Chants from the Mexican fans – singing Canta y no llores, a tradition in all Mexico games – risked being suddenly turned down as Tottenham star Son went for a one on one with Guillermo Ochoa, but Mexico goalkeeper managed to win the duel, and that ended the first half.
After the break, fans were waiting for the appearance of Lee Seung-Woo, who made his entrance in the 64th minute. The Korean Messi so far has been mostly famous for triggering FIFA to inflict Barcelona a one-year ban from signing new players. In the past season, the youngster was on loan to Hellas Verona, but his performances were inconsistent. Nevertheless, he has some great quality, and is still the biggest football hope for his Country.
A fast-paced counterattack, beautifully finalized by El Chicharito, made it two for Mexico in the 50th minute, bringing the former Real Madrid player to 50 goals scored for his national side. Chucky Lozano was replaced by El Tecatito Jesus Corona, and eventually also Vela was substituted, leaving room to another Masìa product – Giovanni Dos Santos.
The Korean Messi Lee earned a yellow card, showing frustration at the lack of scoring chances for his side. The only one they had actually originated from a mistake by Mexico’s super senior captain Rafael Marquez in the 75th minute, which could have changed the evolution of the last part of the match.
But the Tricolores fans on the stands were pretty confident, and as the game approached to an end, they started to do La ola, which was created right by them during World Cup 1986 in Mexico.
In the 83rd minute, Kim Min-Woo left the pitch doing the military salute to his coach. And then Son made the Korean defeat less bitter, scoring a magnificent goal with a powerful left foot shot from outside the box. That was his special way of saying goodbye to this World Cup, as the 1-2 certified Korea’s elimination, whereas Mexico will continue to battle with Sweden and Germany for a spot in the Round of 16.
June 23, 2018 – World Cup Group Stage Pool F
SOUTH KOREA-MEXICO 1-2
SCORERS: 26’ Vela (M), 66’ Hernandez (M), 93′ Son Heung-Min (K)
|SOUTH KOREA (4-4-2): Jo Hyeon-Woo; Lee Yong, Jang Hyun-Soo, Kim Young-Gwon, Kim Min-Woo (84’ Hong Chul); Moon Seon-Min (Jung Woo-Young), Ju Se-Jong (64’ Lee Seung-Woo), Ki Sung-Yueng, Hwang Hee-Chan Lee Jae Sung, Son Heung-Min. Coach: Shin Tae-Yong
|MEXICO (4-3-3): Ochoa; Alvarez, Salcedo, Moreno, Gallardo; Guardado (68’ Marquez), Herrera, Layun; Vela (77’ G. Dos Santos), Hernandez, Lozano (71’ Corona). Coach: Osorio|
REFEREE: Mazic (Serbia)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Kim Young-Gwon, Lee Yong, Lee Seung-Woo, Jung Woo-Young (C)