The first Mexican I met in Moscow was in an elevator. We nodded at each other, that staid lingua franca of the international elevator, a nod that says, “isn’t this a small distance between us, you and I?”
“What do you think,” I said. “Can Mexico beat Germany?”
“HAHAHAHA,” he laughed (in all caps). “No, but it’s nice to explore Russia.”
I don’t know where that elevator Mexican is now, but I suspect he was one of the many thousands of El Tri fans celebrating throughout Moscow last night, basking in the glow of a truly unexpected victory, the first great shock of this World Cup.
This was, indeed, the thing, the unexpectedness of it all. There is a rich recent history of defending world champions fizzling out four years later (France in 2002, Italy in 2010, Spain in 2014), but it felt somehow inconceivable it would happen to the Germans, who haven’t failed to reach a World Cup semifinal this century.
Every major international sporting event is to some extent really just an invitation to participate in some lazy, occasionally xenophobic, stereotyping, an activity from which the Germans typically emerge in better shape than most — not flaky like the French, not arrogant like the English; just an efficient, emotionally distant collection of fußballroboter.
And so the feeling through the first five minutes at the Luzhniki on Sunday, dominated as it was by Mexico fans, was one of almost flippant celebration, as if it was already understood El Tri’s impressive start would soon give way to the German dominance everyone had arrived at the stadium expecting.
Still, strange things were happening. Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira didn’t seem particularly to care about the 40 yards of space between them and their center-backs, nor did Joshua Kimmich and Marvin Plattenhardt seem inclined to stop charging forward to join the attack.
It was tempting even then, such is the power of the German stereotype, to interpret this as just another a sign of confidence, a sort of supreme un-ruffledness, and that they would shortly find their passing rhythm, begin to take control. None of this happened, of course. Germany’s attack was toothless, their defense exposed.
Is there any point in pointing out Mexico should have scored two or three goals — that Hirving Lozano, Chicharito Hernandez and Carlos Vela were all wasteful in good positions — before the oles started in the 30th minute, before Lozano scored the winner five minutes later? Probably not.
It is almost certainly impossible to hear anyone, let alone tens of thousands of people, thinking, and yet I feel compelled to say that is exactly what I heard in the Luzhniki, some time around 6:35 p.m. MSK, the dawning realization of circa 40,000 Mexicans that their team was not only playing better than Germany, but might actually beat them.
The second Mexican I met in Moscow was wandering confusedly around a train station. We nodded at each other, that staid lingua franca of the train station, a nod that says, “we have just made eye contact, you and I, and there’s nothing we can do about it now.”
“What do you think,” I said. “Did you think they could do it?”
“No hope,” he said.