Mexicans love their football and their lucha libre with the same fervour. At times, their two passions even cross paths. It’s learnt the Mexicans’ 2014 World Cup jersey design was inspired by the mask worn by former WWE champion Rey Mysterio Jr. and arenas for both football and the characteristically masked pro-wrestling events are filled with fans who come in their droves with the same expectation — high-flying, no-holds-barred action. While the luchadores (masked wrestlers) rarely let them down on that front; Mexican football often ends up being more about dogged physicality with players grappling for the ball rather than generating any level of brazen exhilaration with it. Mexican coach Mario Arteaga, though, had insisted on the eve of his team’s Round-of-16 match against Iran that things are different at the Under-17 level, that his team thrives on attack and plays to entertain.
Unfortunately for Arteaga, his unmasked luchadores couldn’t quite live up to his promise and were overpowered and outmanoeuvred by a rampaging Iran outfit to be knocked out of the World Cup.
Iranians know a thing or two about wrestling too. Theirs is a more traditional form of wrestling that involves a lot of tactics and is based on grappling and pinning opponents to the ground. It’s not so much about bewitching them with agility, speed and skill, like their Under-17 team have incidentally done so far in this tournament with the ball at their feet. And that’s why they have been an unstoppable force in the tournament, winning all four of their matches in Goa, including this one by a 2-1 margin to set up a quarterfinal meeting against Spain.
Seizing the initiative
The Iranians, like they did in the group stage, got things going very quickly taking a 2-0 lead within the first 11 minutes of the match. There was a bit of lucha libre action in both those goals. Adrian Vazquez’s tackle from behind on Mohammad Ghaderi inside Mexico’s box was straight out of Lucha Underground, and ended up conceding a penalty. And the Mexican defenders strangely jumped under the ball as if they were avoiding a top-rope manoeuvre from their opponent when Iranian goalkeeper Ali Gholam Zadeh’s goal-kick came flying in their direction, only to let Allahyar Sayyad chip the ball into a near-vacant goal.
Mexico weren’t just losing the battle in their half. The extremely talented Diego Lainez — who earned praise in defeat from the Iranian coach who called him a “menace with the ball” — repeatedly kept sashaying past the Iranian midfield with his trickery, only to fall prey to a three-man defence in place especially for him. Club America’s Lainez, who’s among the youngest in Mexican history to play for a club at the senior level, has already attracted many potential suitors in Europe and it was off the rebound from his shot that Roberto De la Rosa scored Mexico’s only goal.
The Mexicans did keep the game alive in the second half. But with a goal in front, the Iranians played a tactical game, blocking out the Mexican onslaught without going for a finishing move. And when the final whistle went off, it was they who stood with their hands raised, as many of the Mexicans lay flat on the mat at Fatorda.