Javier “Chicharito” Hernández was not the best Mexican player on the field in Sunday’s World Cup match against Germany. That honor probably belongs to goal-scorer Hirving Lozano, or any of El Tri’s defensive midfielders and center backs who spent the game stoning Germany’s attacks. Hernández was not the reason Mexico won the game. That one probably belongs to Germany’s dysfunctional midfield and their refusal to have more than two men back on defense. But what Hernández did do was play a soccer game, extremely hard, and he cried like a baby when it was all over.
Mexico’s path towards an upset victory became clear pretty early on in the match. Germany were going to play a very high defensive line, commit seven or eight men forward as often as possible, and rely on their two stud center backs, Mats Hummels and Jérôme Boateng, to hold down most of the defensive duties. This left Mexico with only one way to play: fight like hell to win the ball back in the midfield, and then try to beat Boateng and Hummels on the counterattack.
That sort of strategy is a promising one in theory, and conjures images of skillful center backs pinging long passes to a big, strong striker who holds the ball up before zipping a pass back to an onrushing winger who starts a 2-on-2 or 3-on-2 break. But theory and reality are often divergent, and this was Mexico’s reality:
Hernández is a 30-year-old, 5-foot-9 striker who has never been anyone’s idea of a hold-up specialist. Not only was he tasked with being precisely that during Sunday’s game, he was asked to do it against two world-class tanks who play together at Bayern Munich. Boateng and Hummels were put on this earth to stomp the hell out of strikers far bigger and far younger than Hernández, and they’ve made quite the careers out of doing just that. Mexico essentially asked Hernández to win the game for them by spending 90 minutes getting the shit beat out of him.
Hernández managed to tick off both boxes. He spent most of the game rushing towards long passes with Boateng or Hummels right on his back, trying desperately to get a meaningful touch on the ball before getting absolutely trucked. He was flattened over and over again, and each time he had to get up and eagerly wait for the ball and further punishment to arrive once more. I’m not trying to be cheap here and rely on photographs to do all the work of describing this game for me, but there’s really nothing that can be said about Hernández’s game that isn’t better said by this picture:
Playing striker is hard. Sure, you get the goals and the glory and the shoe deals, but most of your playing life is spent working your ass off just to fail. Most of those off-ball sprints end with through balls that never come; most of those shots end up sailing wide or getting blocked in the box; most link-up plays fizzle out; most set pieces end with you getting an elbow to the ribs or the face. You run around a lot and get bumped and kicked and run over and more often than not it all adds up to dick.
But you keep doing it all just to get to that one moment when everything goes right, when the theoretical beauty of a well-played counterattack becomes reality:
Mexico got that one moment, and Hernández was right there at the center of it. Of course he went on to flub a number of chances that could have given Mexico a second or even third goal, but when the whistle sounded at the end of the game none of that mattered. He had spent over 90 minutes mostly failing and getting run the fuck over by opponents much bigger and stronger than he is. But he played his ass off, and he did just enough, and he won. You can’t blame him for crying.