Déjà vu is a French phrase loaned to the English vocabulary that literally translated means “already seen”. It’s taken on a life of its own in English, to the point where a closer approximation is the experience of going through something again, even if you’ve never experienced it before.
Quinto partido is a uniquely Mexican Spanish form of déjà vu, in the sense that it’s a phrase that has transcended its literal translation of “fifth game” to be something that Mexican soccer fans experience again and again, even if they’ve never experienced it exactly the same way before.
To begin to understand the quinto partido, you have to go back to the last time the World Cup was held on Mexican soil. México beat Bulgaria 2-0 on goals from Manuel Negrete and Raúl Servin at the Azteca in 1986, a week before Diego Maradona’s historic performance against England, scoring the “Hand of God” and the “Goal of the Century” minutes apart. The day prior to that historic game, however, México faced off against West Germany at El Volcán just outside of Monterrey, where the West Germans outlasted the hosts in a 0-0 draw that wound up in penalties. Klaus Allofs, Andreas Brehme, Lothar Matthäus, and Pierre Litbarski all converted their penalties past Pablo Larios, while only Negrete could get a penalty past Harald Schumacher. West Germany went on to beat France before losing in the World Cup Final to Maradona’s Argentina.
The win against Bulgaria, however, was the last time México got into the quarterfinals, which is the fifth game for a team to play in the 24- and 32-team versions of the tournament. The déjà vu is evident in how time after time after time México has made it out of the group stage only to falter in the Round of 16, having now done that in seven straight tournaments almost in highly frustrating fashion.
México missed the 1990 World Cup when they knowingly fielded overage players in the 1988 CONCACAF U20 tournament and were sanctioned by Concacaf and FIFA, missing the 1988 Olympics in Seoul as well. To make matters worse, the week after FIFA levied the sanctions, the United States was awarded the 1994 World Cup.
In 1994, it was a loss to Bulgaria in penalties where Alberto García Aspe, Marcelino Bernal, and Jorge Rodríguez all missed their shots. In 1998, it was a clear hand ball by Germany’s Christian Wörns and a couple of fouls in the box that went unpunished that helped sink El Tri. In 2002, US midfielder John O’Brien punched a shot out but wasn’t penalized. In 2006, it was a Maxi Rodríguez golazo in added time that sent Argentina through and México home. In 2010, a Carlos Tevez goal was allowed to stand despite Tevez being clearly offside, setting the stage for Argentina’s 3-1 win. In 2014, the phrase “No era penal” came into the popular lexicon when Arjen Robben dove in the box in stoppage, drawing a penalty that Klaas-Jan Huntelaar converted putting the Netherlands into the quarterfinals. In 2018, México held Brazil off as long as they could, but a goal (and theatrics) from Neymar and an insurance goal from Roberto Firmino sent them to their seventh straight defeat in the Round of 16.
In order to help understand the quinto partido, SB Nation asked some fans of El Tri what the phrase means to them. The answers varied wildly. Some were one-word answers, like a fan who only identified themself as Jose saying “Relief” and a fan named Jacobo saying “mediocridad” to some longer answers. A fan named John Torres said that “Other countries dream of winning the Cup or reaching the Final but for México, it would be ratification that the team belongs amongst the elite of the world. We, the fans, know they belong, especially since they generally are worthy opposition against strong teams. We just want that recognition by the rest of the fútbol world. That said, it won’t happen this year.”
The tone of this answer was echoed often: achieving the quinto partido would bring a lot of pride to a national team that wants to be counted among the global elite, but few expressed faith it would come in 2022.
Mariano Trujillo, who played in two friendlies for México and is an analyst for FOX Deportes said via text message that “For the fans there’s a popular belief that the fifth game is the promised land, where if we get there, everything will change in Mexican soccer once and for all; For the players, (it) represents making history by achieving what hasn’t been done outside of Mexico.”
Trujillo went on to point out that “We emphasize the fifth game because there’s hope that the victory will be the pivotal point to conquer the ghosts of failure and frustration in the international stage. It means breaking the benchmark that could confirm the growth of Mexican soccer through the years. It means laying out the foundation for a promising future in soccer.”
A fan named Maria Itzel said “For me, it’s breaking a ‘curse’ that’s been going on way too long since before I was born. As low as the bar may seem, it means the national team (is) succeeding at the highest level.” She then went on to talk about the Mex Tour games, saying “At times all we’re worried about is the marketing of the team and players instead of growing our fútbol and exporting more players overseas. In my opinion, I’d say making it to the famous quinto partido next month would be a statement. All said about the (national team) barely qualifying, Tata, doubts going into the (World Cup), injuries, and whether the right players were called would be FORGOTTEN (for the meantime of course) because we’re never (Satisfied) and we want more. After a long four years, history would be made in Qatar!”
The notion of it being a curse was one that was shared by Fidel Martinez, Editorial Director for Latino Initiatives at the Los Angeles Times, who said via direct message “For me getting to the fifth game would be a huge weight off our collective shoulders. There’s a saying about El Tri that perfectly encapsulates our perennial exit in the Round of 16 – ‘jugamos como nunca y perdimos como siempre.’ (Translated: ‘we played like never before, but lost like always.’) That stings, and whether people want to admit it or not, it feels like a curse. Getting to that quinto partido would be a breaking of that curse.”
A fan named Osvaldo said in part “I think el quinto partido is a bar in which the Mexican fans, media, and federation have unhealthy, and maybe undeservedly, hung their hopes and dreams. Reaching the quarterfinals is not going to magically fix the systemic problems in Mexican football.”
“Many things have been missing,” said John Laguna, long-time broadcaster on FOX Deportes. Laguna pointed out to SB Nation via recorded message that ”in Japan and Korea, the United States beat us. Someone who shouldn’t win always beats us” in these matches.
Gabriela Silva of Pancho Villa’s Army, the El Tri supporter group in the US, said “Personally, I think that México is not in an optimal condition to make the quinto partido (in Qatar). We are all confident in how the World Cup performance (will be) different, but I don’t have much hope.”
“I hope I’m wrong,” she concluded.
A fan named Javier said that the quinto partido is “an illusion of a good Mexican participation in the World Cup, but personally it seems mediocre to think about (it), even if it has been a barrier that hasn’t been passed. What we should always aim for is the top. A selection that aims for that would excite me very much.”
The full depth of answers show that the quinto partido means many different things to many different people. While some view it as a goal to be attained, others see it merely as a crutch to excuse why México has not done better in the World Cup despite having several teams that seemed talented enough to go farther. And while there may never be a consensus on what it means or even should mean, only one thing will truly help México and its fans move past the quinto partido: actually getting into the quinto partido.
Hopefully then, there will be no déjà vu.