ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia — The singing started in the dying minutes of the match. Like so many chants that pop up these days in international soccer, it cribbed the familiar bass line of the White Stripes song “Seven Nation Army.”
The parts that were new — and remarkable, really — were the words.
“El Profe Osorio!” roared the fans of Mexico, who formed the huge majority of the spectators at the packed, steamy Rostov Arena on Saturday night. “El Profe Osorio!”
Coach Juan Carlos Osorio, the object of their affections, arrived in Russia this month beneath a hailstorm of criticism from all corners of Mexico. That he carried a winning record with the team mattered little. Members of the Mexican news media were openly hostile to him and his tactical choices. Fans called for his dismissal. But on Saturday night, he was the beloved professor.
How quickly things can change in the rarefied ecosystem of a World Cup.
The team, under his guidance, has engineered a perfect start to this tournament, first knocking off Germany, the defending champion, and on Saturday night dispatching a plucky South Korea team, one looking to salvage some worth from its own stay in Russia, by a 2-1 score.
Asked after the game about the fans’ change of tune, Osorio took the same contemplative view, the same philosophical detachment, that has carried him to this point.
“I think this will be a very beautiful memory in the future,” Osorio said in Spanish through an interpreter. “But remember, football is subjective. There are many differing opinions inherent to the sport, constant changes, and many analyses only have to do with the final score. So I think the most appropriate action is to keep working. We cannot simply get carried away with our victory.”
The fans could be forgiven, though, for letting themselves get lost in their feelings.
In Mexico’s first game, a 1-0 win against Germany, Osorio orchestrated a counterpunching masterpiece of a game plan, helping the Mexicans sidestep and stun their vaunted opponents. Here on Saturday night, the Mexicans were the ones applying the steady pressure, controlling about 60 percent of the possession and withstanding 24 fouls from a South Korean team that seemed intent on disrupting its flow.
Mexico’s first goal, which came in the 26th minute, was the result of a hand ball call on defender Jang Hyun-soo, whose arm deflected the ball as he attempted a slide tackle in front of South Korea’s goal. Carlos Vela calmly struck the ensuing penalty kick to the left of goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo, sending the crowd into hysterics and huge quantities of beer into the air above the stands.
Mexico tallied again in the 66th minute after forcing a midfield turnover — on a play that South Korea Coach Shin Tae-yong believed was a foul — and then finishing off a sweeping counterattack with a deft shot by Javier Hernández.
“We’ve come to Russia with a lot of criticism, but we’ve been able to challenge that,” Hernández said through an interpreter. “We just want to forget the criticism and the dark comments. But we don’t want to pay attention to praise, either.”
In stoppage time, South Korea snatched a small consolation, a momentary thrill, when forward Son Heung-min — the team’s most dangerous player throughout the game — cracked a twisting thunderbolt of a shot with his left foot that went just inside the far, left post from about 25 yards.
“It’s very disappointing,” Son said after the match. “For me, scoring goals is not important. The most important thing is the result.”
The celebrations among the Mexican players after the game felt almost subdued, nothing like the joyful catharsis after the team’s victory over Germany. As the final whistle blared, half the South Korean team collapsed onto the grass, and several Mexican players went around slapping their shoulders, trying to pick them back up.
With one game to go in group play, Mexico, with six points, is in a strong position to advance to the round of 16. And South Korea, without a single point, is almost certain to go home.
All of that will be resolved in the group’s final games on Wednesday, when Mexico plays Sweden and South Korea plays Germany. For now, the Mexican fans were happy to party, lingering around the stands on Saturday night long after the players had departed the field, taking pictures to commemorate the moment.
If the appearance of amorous songs of tribute for Osorio felt remarkable, so, too, did the sudden absence of another chant — the homophobic taunt that Mexico fans have traditionally cried out in unison whenever opponents take goal kicks. Postgame fines from FIFA for use of the slur have essentially become an everyday part of the Mexican federation’s match-day expenditures.
It was heard, for instance, in the Mexico-Germany game in Moscow, and the team again received a fine of $10,000. Mexican players, as they have countless times, then pleaded with their supporters, asking them to refrain from using the word.
Only this time, their words were heeded. When Jo lined up for his first goal kick, the fans kept singing their other songs, and it went that way for each one thereafter.
It is astounding, indeed, what a couple of wins at a World Cup and a surplus of good vibes can do to a team and its fan base.
Here’s how Mexico defeated South Korea:
Well! South Korea gets one back, and Son Heung-Min gets his World Cup highlight. He curls an absolutely beautiful shot from the top of the penalty area on the right side past Ochoa, who didn’t have a chance to get a hand on it. Mexico has about 90 seconds of drama to make avoid what would be a disastrous draw.
Five minutes of stoppage time for Mexico to close this out. Shouldn’t be too hard with the way they’ve been able to control this game.
Son Heung-Min looks very much a defeated man after flubbing an open shot from 20 yards, sending it well high of the goal.
Mexico’s biggest task for the last 10 minutes or so might be avoiding a silly injury or yellow card. The South Koreans are frustrated, and Jung Woo-Young gets a yellow card for catching Hernandez with an elbow.
Mexico makes its last change of the night, bringing on Giovani Dos Santos for Vela. Jesus Corona came on for Lozano earlier, and Marquez replaced Guardado.
Mexico may be up by 2, but they’re still defending like their life depends on it. A terrible pass back to Ochoa by Rafa Marquez leads to a golden opportunity for Son, but Marquez gets back to help break it up and preserve Ochoa’s shutout.
Lee Seung-Woo unleashes a little South Korean frustration on Layun, earning a yellow card after he clears out Layun’s legs on a counter attack down the right side. This could get a big chippy in the last 20 minutes.
Javier Hernandez buries one for Mexico, and they’re well on their way to booking a ticket to the knockout phase! Chucky Lozano is again the orchestrator. Hector Herrera dislodged the ball from South Korea in Mexico’s half, then Lozano collected it and carried it all the way to South Korea’s area. A simple dish-off to Hernandez on the right side, and Hernandez slid it in for his 50th international goal.
South Korea makes its first change: Ju Se-Jong is off for 20-year-old Lee Seung-Woo.
The second half has been much more wide open. Ochoa makes a strong save for Mexico on a dangerous shot from inside the area, then an immediate Mexican counter finds Carlos Vela on the right side of the South Korea box, but it curls a bit high.
Well, Jo Hyeon-Woo decides to thoroughly one-up Ochoa on the other end. Guardado turns and puts a shot toward the upper left corner, but Jo makes a flying save to push it wide.
Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa comes up big, getting both hands in front of a laser from Ki Sung-Yueng from the left side of the area.
Mexico narrowly escapes returning the favor with a penalty kick. Moon Seon-Min got the ball near the six-yard box and got an off-balance shot off, but Carlos Salcedo was in the way. It first appeared that the ball might have caught Salcedo’s hand, but replays confirmed it was his chest.
A couple chances for Mexico, but both fly well over the goal. Lozano takes a hard shot from the left side off a feed from Vela, then a minute later Hernandez has a go from further out that also flies high.
The second half is underway. South Korea needs a goal to avoid a devastating second straight loss in the group stage.
Until May, Mexico didn’t have accent marks with players’ names on the back of its jerseys. Behind the successful #PonleAcento push was a New York Times editor.
South Korea briefly put together a sustained attack for a few minutes at the end of the first half, but it was all Mexico otherwise. The Mexican squad’s speed and ball control kept South Korea pinned back for much of the first half, but it took a fortunate handball call for Mexico to find the net. If South Korea is to get back into this one, it’ll probably be through Son Heung-Min, who gave the Mexico defense fits the couple times he got the ball in their end.
Another opportunity for Son, another block for Mexico. He has a go from the top of Mexico’s penalty area, but Salcedo gets in the way and deflects it over the bar.
The stats might not always tell the whole story, but they’re pretty instructive in this one: 72 percent of the possession has been Mexico’s, and South Korea has 11 fouls to Mexico’s four. South Korea appears to be hoping for stout defending and a fortunate counter.
South Korea’s only threatening moments have come on counter attacks that find Son Heung-Min. He gets another opportunity on a long ball out of South Korea’s half, running onto it near the Mexico area, but his first touch his too strong and he can’t do anything with it.
Son Heung-Min unleashes an impressive-looking free kick from about 30 yards out in the center of the field, but his well-struck shot flies just high.
Mexico looks ready to put in another one right away. Vela plays a perfect ball across the top of the area to Layun, but Layun’s wide-open shot goes just over the bar.
A handball in the area gives Mexico a penalty kick, and Carlos Vela buries it and gives Mexico the early lead! Jang Hyun-Soo was the culprit for South Korea — he slid in to try to stop Guardado near the end line, but Guardado’s cross caught him on the arm and the ref blew his whistle for a penalty.
Song Heung-Min, South Korea’s most dangerous player, receives a long ball and has a break on goal, but Carlos Salcedo gets back to block the shot, crucially.
South Korea gets its first opportunity, and it’s a frightening one for Mexico. Hwang Hee-Chan gets to the end line and floats a ball to the back post, but Chucky Lozano flies in to break it up and prevent Lee Yong from getting a foot on it. Lozano, the goal-scorer in Mexico’s win over Germany, has tracked back for a couple nice defensive plays already today.
Through the first 10 minutes: 72 percent, according to ESPN. They’ve earned a couple set pieces in South Korea’s half, including a corner kick just now, but none have been particularly threatening.
Mexico gets an early opportunity with a free kick from about 35 yards out on the left side, but Layun’s free kick is easily headed away.
Mexico made one change to its starting lineup: Hugo Ayala, who started last game at centerback, is on the bench. Carlos Salcedo, a right back against Germany, slides into the middle to take his place, and Edson Alvarez gets into the lineup to play on the right.
Mexico in white, and South Korea in red.
Andrew Keh: It’s about 93 degrees right now in Rostov-on-Don, with a whole bunch of humidity, the type of weather that makes you sweat just by sitting in it. I’m in the outdoor press seating area right now, where my fellow journalists are all aggressively wiping the perspiration from their foreheads.
South Korea Coach Shin Tae-yong said before the game that the weather could be “a deciding factor,” one that he oddly seemed to concede to Mexico: “I think that the weather will work in favor of the Mexican team because they are used to the heat,” Shin said, before adding about his own squad: “I think the weather will impact us negatively.”
13 Guillermo Ochoa
15 Héctor Moreno
3 Carlos Salcedo
23 Jesús Gallardo
21 Edson Álvarez
11 Carlos Vela
18 Andrés Guardado
16 Héctor Herrera
14 Javier Hernández
22 Hirving Lozano
7 Miguel Layún
23 Jo Hyeon-Woo
19 Kim Young-Gwon
20 Jang Hyun-Soo
12 Kim Min-Woo
2 Lee Yong
16 Ki Sung-Yueng
8 Ju Se-Jong
17 Lee Jae-Sung
18 Moon Seon-Min
7 Son Heung-Min
11 Hwang Hee-Chan
• Mexico’s lineup: Under Manager Juan Carlos Osorio, Mexico has used 49 different lineups in 49 different games. After such an impressive performance against Germany, how much will Osorio be willing to tinker with his starting XI?
• Coming off its thrilling opener (it caused an earthquake, after all), one of Mexico’s biggest threats may be complacency. Osorio addressed it in a pregame news conference on Friday: “We talked about how to not fall into the comfort zone and rest on our laurels,” he told reporters at a news conference. “This week we’ve talked about the topic, we’ve looked at two or three situations and emphasized what we did right against Germany.
• Did Mexico get enough sleep? It had to sent its captain, Rafa Marquez, out to address raucous fans in front of its hotel Friday night to thank them but also make a small request: Please, let the players rest.
• South Korea needs Son Heung-min to come up with a much better performance than he could muster against Sweden. In a side that appeared to lack ideas, he has the potential to be a difference-maker on offense.
The video-assistant-referee system has led to a higher percentage of penalty-kick goals than in each previous tournament.
• The Mexican federation and some of its players, including Chicharito, took to social media to ask fans to stop using a homophobic chant in the stadium. FIFA fined the federation for the fans’ chant in its opening game against Germany.
• Meet Iceland’s “Ruligans” — the polite-but-passionate fan group that has grown from a few outliers in plastic Viking helmets into a singing, thunder-clapping force.
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