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.
World Cup - Group F - South Korea vs Mexico - Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don, Russia - Jun 23, 2018 Mexico's Carlos Vela scores their first goal from the penalty spot. Reuters World Cup - Group F - South Korea vs Mexico - Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don, Russia - Jun 23, 2018 Mexico's Carlos Vela scores their first goal from the penalty spot. Reuters 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.
World Cup - Group F - South Korea vs Mexico - Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don, Russia - June 23, 2018 Mexico fans inside the stadium before the match. Reuters World Cup - Group F - South Korea vs Mexico - Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don, Russia - June 23, 2018 Mexico fans inside the stadium before the match. Reuters “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 Wednesday, when Mexico plays Sweden and South Korea plays Germany. For now, the Mexican fans were happy to party, lingering around the stands 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.