YEKATERINBURG, Russia — An ecstatic roar thundered across the stands in the tense closing moments of the Mexico-Sweden game Wednesday. A joyful storm of unidentifiable liquids and debris hurtled through the air. Mexican spectators pumped their fists and hugged one another tightly.
The outburst had little to do with what was happening on the field at Central Stadium, where Mexico was disintegrating en route to a 3-0 loss to Sweden in the two countries’ vital final match of the World Cup group stage. Rather, the fans were reacting to events unfolding nearly 1,000 kilometres away, in Kazan, where South Korea, against all odds, was beating Germany, the defending champions of the World Cup.
The competitive permutations were complicated and plentiful as these four teams in the tournament’s Group F, singled out as the “Group of Death” for the quality of its rosters, took the field. But this development was simple enough to comprehend: Sweden was moving forward with its win and, more striking for this crowd and fans of El Tri elsewhere, Mexico was going to the round of 16, too, thanks to South Korea’s victory.
The improbable events set off celebrations from here, the easternmost host city of the World Cup, to the streets of Mexico City.
In a rare game that left fans of both teams happy, Mexicans and Swedes departed the stadium singing, “Bye bye, Germany!” while children in the concourses wearing lucha libre masks and the green shirts of Mexico chanted “Corea! Corea!”
Yet the biggest eruptions might have occurred in Mexico City, where thousands watched the match on a makeshift screen erected in the city’s central square, the Zócalo. Afterward, scores of fans rushed to the South Korean Embassy to express their gratitude and to celebrate.
When Han Byoung-jin, the consul general, came out to greet the crowd, he was handed a shot of tequila and lifted into the air.
“Coreano! Hermano! Ya eres mexicano!” the crowd chanted. “Korean brother! Now you are Mexican!”
People assumed to be South Korean were cheered and thanked, including a Japanese university student watching the game in the Zócalo who was raised up on shoulders and asked to pose for photographs.
“It doesn’t bother me,” said the man, Keigo Munemura, 21, who has lived in Mexico City for a year to study Spanish. “Mexicans are very fun. It was fun.”
The euphoria seemed to dissolve the ill feelings over Mexico’s sudden poor play.
Trailing, 3-0, in the match with 15 minutes left to play, the players on Wednesday night might as well have plopped down onto the grass, gathered around someone’s cellphone and started following the Germany-South Korea game. A large portion of the crowd was doing that, anyway.
And then a sudden, cathartic cheer greeted South Korea’s first goal in Kazan.
“The crowd, they started cheering,” said Miguel Layún, a Mexican midfielder, explaining how he and his teammates learned that South Korea had scored the first of its two goals. “It was a kind of strange feeling because we were trying to win here, and at the end, it was good to know that Korea was winning, but it wasn’t that good because of the feeling we had because of our match.”
After the match, Mexico’s coach, Juan Carlos Osorio, looked dejected. He stood still on the field, staring into space, hardly speaking.
“I have to say that we qualified because we beat Germany and Korea,” Osorio said, referring to Mexico’s upset of Germany, 1-0, in its first game and its defeat of South Korea, 2-1, in its second. “However, nevertheless, I am very hurt.”
Mexico could have guaranteed its own advancement with a win or tie against Sweden. But rather than employ three big central defenders and a defensive midfielder — the team’s normal plan against a big, strong team that plays in the air — Osorio sent out an attack-minded four-man defensive line with two wingbacks to run the channels.
Sweden tried to narrow the field. Mexico tried to expand it, and they were steamrolled.
The goals came within a span of 25 minutes, starting in the 50th, when Ludwig Augustinsson drilled in a loose ball that had fortuitously fallen to his feet after a badly shanked shot from his teammate, Viktor Claesson.
About 10 minutes after that, Andreas Granqvist calmly converted a penalty kick after a foul by Hector Moreno in the box. And in the 74th minute, Mexican defender Edson Alvarez scored an own goal when he whiffed trying to clear a ball that ended up bouncing off his leg and trickling into the goal.
But all that was quickly forgotten by Mexico’s fans, or perhaps saved to parse ahead of Mexico’s next challenge, a do-or-die match against Brazil on Monday. Mexico has not advanced beyond the round of 16 since 1986, so the pressure to win will be intense.
But for now, Mexico chose to celebrate, however unlikely the sequence of events that had fans on different continents, from different countries, coming together in a mishmash of celebrations.
“They are crazy,” Han, the consular official, said of the Mexican fans. “But I’m also crazy today.”