ARLINGTON, Texas — It is a legacy of World Cup consistency, but one in which Mexico no longer wants any part.
One coach after another has tried to break the streak. A few emphasized hard work. One appealed to national pride. One even sought a new mindset, and a different kind of ending, at the top of an ancient pyramid.
As Mexico arrives at the World Cup in Russia, it will be with the country’s most promising lineup in decades. More than half the players on the roster have experience in top European teams or leagues. Several are Olympic gold medalists, and a couple of others were world champions as teenagers.
But the biggest hurdle facing El Tri is likely to be psychological: Does Mexico have the mental strength to go with its obvious soccer skill to overcome its troubling reputation for crashing out in the second round?
To break the spell, Mexico’s soccer federation and its coach, Juan Carlos Osorio, have tried an untraditional solution: In 2016, they added Imanol Ibarrondo to the coaching staff as what they called the team’s mental coach. Osorio has defended the decision, amid fierce criticism from the unrelenting Mexican news media, as standard practice in modern sports.
“The United States is a top country in the world, and all the athletes have mental help,” Osorio said. “What is wrong with that?”
A Cultural Shift
While a focus on the mental approach was unusual for Mexico, it was not unprecedented. In 2006, the team’s coach experimented with an amateur spiritual guide who took players to the top of the country’s ancient pyramids to “charge energy.”
Subsequent coaches shunned the importance of therapeutic practices, even as top clubs and other national teams embraced them, because of a tradition of viewing mental preparation with a degree of skepticism.
Ibarrondo is not a licensed psychologist. He was briefly a professional soccer player in his native Spain in the 1990s before retiring and reinventing himself as a sports leadership guru. In 2006, he founded Incoade, a coaching institute in Bilbao, Spain, with a mission of increasing “awareness and responsibility” so athletes, coaches and staff members can become the “protagonists of their own talent development.” Ibarrondo wrote a book about his methods outlining seven pillars of teamwork, including focusing on empathy and positive thinking.
Despite some previous skepticism, Osorio and several players said, the team has embraced his presence. At a friendly here in March, defender Miguel Layún and strikers Javier Hernández and Marco Fabián were among the players who said they welcomed the decision to have someone around who was trying to break the team’s old habits.
“Our confidence is now at the top,” Fabián said. “He’s made us feel that we are all in the same boat, working toward the same goal.”
Osorio said that during Mexico’s training camps, Ibarrondo organized two big activities for the team without the coaching staff. He said the sessions could get emotional. “It’s good that the players show that, instead of anger toward the media,” Osorio said.
“What’s good about Ibarrondo is that he can motivate based on ideas that are rooted in soccer,” said Francisco Palencia, a former forward who had worked with him before. “He knows how to talk about the game because he played it himself.”
Ibarrondo, citing privacy concerns, declined to comment about his interactions for this article. But in a discussion with reporters May 25 at the team’s media day in Los Angeles, he said he was pushing the team not to focus on getting to the fifth game. “Let’s talk about the first one, and the one after that, and then the one after that,” he said. “I am not going to think about the third or the fourth because there is always one” to focus on.
His style is to use group meetings, and then one-on-one time with each player, in an effort to draw out his individual needs. “His process consists of transformative conversations,” Palencia said in a telephone interview from his home in Barcelona, Spain. “It encourages people to become the best version of themselves.”
But the team’s record since Ibarrondo’s hiring is mixed. In Mexico’s first match after he took an official role, it broke a long losing streak against the United States by winning a World Cup qualifier in Columbus, Ohio. But the next summer, Mexico settled for a tie in the return match in Mexico City, then crashed out of the Confederations Cup in Russia weeks later with a humbling 4-1 loss to Germany.
Critics of the team, and of Osorio, pointed to the defeat as merely the latest example of a Mexican team crumbling in the late stages of a competition. Even as Mexican officials have put their faith in Ibarrondo, Osorio acknowledged the difficulty of seeking a magic formula.
The “players will acquire their mental strength by competing,” he said in May, when announcing his preliminary roster for the World Cup. But given Mexico’s recent history in the tournament — a run of disappointments that earned Mexico the nickname “el equipo del ya merito,” or “the just almost team” — a new approach seemed worth a try.
In 1994, Mexico lost to Bulgaria on penalty kicks in the second round. In 1998, it was eliminated at the same stage when it lost a late lead against Germany. And in 2002, the United States dashed El Tri’s hopes — and wounded the nation’s pride — by beating Mexico, 2-0, in Jeonju, South Korea.
Four years later, Argentine coach Ricardo La Volpe, taking charge of Mexico’s team, was the first to acknowledge what seemed obvious to others: that no matter how much Mexico denied it, the team had an existential problem, a lack of confidence that was holding the players back.
“We shrink in situations when there is no reason to shrink,” La Volpe said in 2016.
An Outside Voice
La Volpe argued that Mexican players had little trouble performing at their peak for their club teams, but they seemed intimidated by the experience of more established opponents when they were called to represent their country.
“That’s when you need someone who understands psychology who can help,” La Volpe said.
La Volpe’s solution was to hire Catalina Camacho, an architect he had met while coaching in Toluca, a suburb of Mexico City. La Volpe was impressed with Camacho’s expertise in history and feng shui, the Chinese practice of harmonizing human surroundings with the natural world. He thought those skills could help metaphysically ground his players and build their self-esteem.
Camacho’s unorthodox techniques included outfitting the coach with a tie for games decorated with a dragon — an effort to attract powerful energy — but she also took the team on a trip to the top of the massive pyramids of Teohtihuacán, which she described as a place where men go to die only to be converted into gods.
The players were instructed to clasp hands in a circle and breathe together deeply, close their eyes and blow into the wind to the four directions, said Palencia, then still an active player. In a blog post about her practice, Camacho, who did not respond to requests for comment about her methods, described how she told the players to write down their deepest fears, put them in a coffin and then bury it. She contended the rituals would help players overcome their doubts and encourage team cohesion.
La Volpe said Camacho was integral to Mexico’s success in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. But in a tense game in the second round against Argentina, Mexico tied the South American powerhouse over 90 minutes only to lose in extra time.
Once again, it had failed to advance to the quarterfinals, and the experiment ended. La Volpe’s successor, Javier Aguirre, flatly rejected the idea of bringing in outside help.
“If I bring a specialist, a sports psychologist, the players won’t respect him,” Aguirre told a television interviewer ahead of the tournament in South Africa. “They’ll mock him, boycott him.”
Yet Aguirre’s team went out at the hands of Argentina in the second round, too. The same script played out again at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, when Mexico brought in firebrand Miguel Herrera but exited in the second round for the sixth straight World Cup. A year later, Herrera, too, was gone.
Osorio was unbeaten in his first 10 games in charge, but after a humiliating 7-0 loss to Chile in the Copa América Centenario in 2016, the team was once again facing questions about its mental fortitude. That was when the federation suggested to Osorio that he bring Ibarrondo onto the coaching staff. He said he found a team “in pain.”
Whether he can change its luck is another matter. Mexico was drawn into a first-round group with Germany this year. Still, most predict its talent will be enough to survive the group stage again.
Its most likely opponent there? Brazil.
A Hurdle, Or a Hex?
Mexico has reached the World Cup quarterfinals twice — in 1970 and 1986, both times as the host nation. But its last six appearances all have ended in the same frustrating way: with advancement out of the group, and then defeat in its next game.
1994 | UNITED STATES
After winning a group that included Italy on tiebreakers, Mexico draws Bulgaria in the second round. But a 1-1 tie goes to penalties, Mexico fails to convert its first three attempts, and Bulgaria moves on to the quarters. “Mexico did what we know how to do — we attacked,” said Marcelino Bernal, one of its midfielders. “But we could not finish — not only in the penalty kicks, but throughout the game.”
1998 | FRANCE
A second-place finish in the group stage means Germany instead of Yugoslavia in the second round. Luis Hernández scores two minutes into the second half to give Mexico the lead, but Germany gets two late goals — the first by Jurgen Klinsmann — to advance.
2002 | SOUTH KOREA/JAPAN
Presented a chance to break its second-round curse and eliminate the United States in the same afternoon, Mexico fails on all counts: Brian McBride scores early, Landon Donovan adds a second and the game ends with Mexico’s captain, Rafael Márquez, red-carded for a nasty, cynical foul in the 88th minute.
2006 | GERMANY
A scoreless draw with Angola is probably a bad omen, but Mexico again reaches the second round — only to go out on a spectacular goal by Argentina’s Maxi Rodríguez in extra time.
2010 | SOUTH AFRICA
Argentina is the executioner again, helped to a 3-1 victory by an early goal by Carlos Tevez that was yards offside.
2014 | BRAZIL
Mexico departs in its first knockout game for the sixth straight World Cup, ousted this time by the Netherlands, 2-1, after Arjen Robben flops to win a hotly disputed penalty in second-half injury time. Fuming, Mexico coach Miguel Herrera tears into the officiating. “We will leave tomorrow or the day after,” he says. “We believe the referee should be going home, too.”