In the 1999 Copa America, Brazil and Mexico met in their second group game. Brazil won 2-1, but they were coming under such pressure at the end of the game that the entire coaching staff were on their feet screaming at the referee to blow the final whistle.
For the Mexicans, even in defeat, this was a wonderful feeling. Ever since Brazil won the World Cup in such magnificent style on Mexican soil in 1970, that yellow shirt had held a mythical place. But here they were, these superhuman Brazilians, so rattled by Mexico that they were begging for the game to end. It was a huge moment for Mexican football’s self-esteem.
There would be no looking back. In the 2001 Copa, Mexico beat Brazil by a single goal in the group stage — a scoreline they repeated on German soil in the 2005 Confederations Cup. A few months later, they beat Brazil 3-0 in the final of the under-17 World Cup, and roll on seven years and they again overcame Brazil in the final to win the gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics.
Monday’s meeting, though, is different. It is the real thing, the senior World Cup. True, Mexico held Brazil to a goalless draw — on Brazilian soil — in the last World Cup, and began the collapse of the hosts that culminated in that astonishing 7-1 capitulation to Germany. But that was a group game, while this time it is win or go home.
Reaching the quarterfinals over the fallen body of the five-time world champions would be glory for Mexico. For Brazil, meanwhile, it would viewed as a historic humiliation. It will be fascinating to see the effect of the respective pressures on both sides. Who will be inspired and who will be cowed by what is at stake?
Added spice is thrown in by the identity of the Mexico coach, a Colombian who has worked in Brazil. Juan Carlos Osorio is a fascinating figure, a Stan Laurel lookalike capable of putting either the opposition or his own team in another fine mess. Osorio is a forward-thinking coach, with a love for wingers and swift transitions to the flanks. The risk, though, is that when the move breaks down, he can leave his side too stretched out, providing skilled opponents an opportunity to make good use of this space. Chile did so in an amazing 7-0 win in the 2016 Copa Centenario. Germany’s “B” side effectively ended the game in the first 10 minutes in last year’s Confederations Cup semifinal. Osorio, though, obtained full revenge with a stunning victory over Germany’s full-strength team in the current tournament, pointing the 2014 champions towards the exit gate.
This will surely be the template for the meeting with Brazil, keeping the midfield and defensive lines close together while being quick to support some rapid counterattacks. Brazil, though, are not Germany. They have much more attacking pace and much more individual ability.
Then again, Mexico are not Serbia, who Brazil beat to seal their place in the final 16. Serbia have no one with the speed and threat of Hirving Lozano — and also no match for Carlos Vela, who has been a revelation operating off the main striker.
The Mexican challenge will bring into focus a change that Brazil have made to their team since qualifying for the tournament toward the end of last year. The selection of Thiago Silva at centre-back looks like a wise move in the light of the Serbia game. He scored the second goal that eased the pressure on his side, and against a side with the aerial strength of Serbia, it was easy to understand his inclusion.
During qualification, though, he was on the bench, behind the partnership of Marquinhos and Miranda. This double act worked extremely well, and Marquinhos is very unfortunate to have lost his place. Coach Tite admits that this has been a tough decision, and he has surely been influenced by the extra height of Thiago Silva. But the weapon of the Mexicans is pace. Marquinhos is the quickest of Brazil’s centre-backs, and his speed could well be missed Monday.
Brazil, though, justifiably go into the game as favourites. They have oscillated so far in the tournament — but when they have clicked, they have been very good. The opening goal against Serbia is a fine example; Neymar played wide on the left, hugging the touchline but staying deep — drawing defenders and creating a channel down that flank for centre-forward Gabriel Jesus.
Brazil nearly got in twice through that route. This forced the Serbian right-sided centre-back to funnel over, and a gap opened up between him and his centre-back partner. Paulinho was pushed into the gap, and met a gorgeously calibrated through ball from Philippe Coutinho with a subtle little dink over the goalkeeper. Tactical intelligence, collective understanding and individual ability, all hitting together. Mexico will have to defend heroically if they are to withstand this challenge.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.