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Mexico Just Taught Germany a Lesson: Never Win a World Cup

El Tri’s swashbuckling 1-0 win over Die Mannschaft continued an ignominious run for defending World Cup champions

Germany v Mexico: Group F - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

The World Cup had its first great game on Friday when Spain and Portugal dueled to a 3-3 draw, and it had its first upset on Sunday, when Hirving “Chucky” Lozano gave Mexico a stunning 1-0 win over Germany.

Mexico’s game plan from the start was to rely on a counter-attack to pressure their opponents, and Germany allowed them an unimpeded path. They pushed a high line—and stuck with 31-year-old Sami Khedira, a once rangy but now limited midfielder—in the middle to keep Mexico out of the box. Khedira is a step slower than he was four years ago, and Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger aren’t around to clean up for his mistakes. His midfield partner, Toni Kroos, is one of the best passers in the world and isn’t on the field for his defensive presence. The pair of central midfielders finished the game with zero interceptions, and only one combined tackle.

Each time Mexico probed with a through ball or a lob up the wings, they were gifted with a two-on-one, and sometimes three. Germany’s sloppy movements in the Mexican defensive third gave El Tri plenty of opportunities to push up the pitch, and had Miguel Layún not settled for a handful of deep or off-balance attempts, the score may have read 2-0 or 3-0 by the final whistle.

All afternoon, Germany’s attacks followed a similar pattern. Jérôme Boateng or Mats Hummels would feed the ball up to Mesut Özil or Toni Kroos, who handed it off to Thomas Müller, Joshua Kimmich, or Julian Draxler on the wings, only for one of them to launch a misguided or uninspired cross into a crowded Mexican box. The kind of clinical buildup or immaculate timing that has defined Die Mannschaft for the better part of the past 20 years went missing, with their best chances coming off set pieces. Kroos’s first-half free kick may have put them on the board against another keeper, but Guillermo Ochoa thrives in national competition, and Sunday was no different.

Normally, upsets like this follow a similar pattern. The underdog turns a game into a boxing match, and uses the chaos to slip a goal past a superior opponent. This was not that. From start to almost-finish, Mexico had the best chances on goal. They sent balls up the wings and over the middle, and kept Germany’s center backs active. Their defense packed in tight when the defending champs chose to press, and their midfielders intercepted more balls than could be expected against a sharp passing team.

Ochoa now becomes the second netminder ever to record World Cup clean sheets against Brazil and Germany. His nine saves and expert distribution kept Mexico alive late in the game, when substitutes like Marco Reus and Julian Brandt were asking questions.

Timo Werner, supposedly Germany’s first real no. 9 since Miroslav Klose was in his prime, was absent for most of the day, and the oft-injured Mario Gómez’s best contribution after coming on in the second half contribution was a squandered chance at close range. Even Müller, the Raumdeuter himself, struggled to get clean looks on goal.

It was Germany’s first opening game that didn’t end with three points since 1986, when they drew Uruguay, and their first opening loss since 1982, when they fell to Algeria. Mexico now holds the pole position in Group F, and barring collapse, should be the favorite to win it. That impact goes beyond just making it to the round of 16, though. Group F’s winner picks up the second-place finisher in Group E. Its runner-up likely draws presumptive tournament favorite Brazil. A matchup with the Seleção could have damned Mexico to a seventh consecutive loss in the round of 16. Now, it’s not unreasonable to think they could make the quarterfinals.

In contrast, Germany’s future is uncertain. Wins over South Korea and Sweden would secure their spot in the round of 16, but history suggests it may not be that easy. Defending champions have struggled more often than not in recent years. After winning the 1998 World Cup at home, France lost their opening match to Senegal in 2002, and failed to make it out of their group. In 2010, Italy finished dead last in their pod, picking up just two points against global powers such as New Zealand and Slovakia. And four years ago, 2010 champs Spain lost their first group game to the Netherlands, 5-1, and their next to Chile, 2-0.

Germany still control their own destiny. Jogi Löw’s squad ranks among the most talented on the planet, but changes have to be made for them to avoid ending their tournament early. If not, they’ll join a storied history of returning champions underperforming in their title defense.