As Mexican defender Rafael Marquez prepares for his fourth World Cup, Tri fans recall fondly his earlier appearances. The brutal elbow against US player Kobi Jones in 2002, his early goal in the narrow defeat to Argentina in 2006, and his tying goal against South Africa in 2010. Still, neither Marquez nor Cuauhtemoc Blanco are El Tri's player who has appeared in the most World Cup tournaments. That distinction belongs to goalkeeper Antonio "Tota" Carbajal. He appeared in five tournaments, but it wasn't always so pretty.
First, some context. Since the 1990's, Mexico has been a perpetual "dark horse" at the World Cup. The domestic league is loaded with cash and regularly produces quality players, a handful of whom have shown on bigger European stages. El Tri has advanced to the Round of 16, escaping the group stages, at every tournament since USA 94. They probably would have advanced at Italy 90, but didn't make the trip: they got caught using overaged players in a youth tournament, and the senior side got banned from qualification.
Still, despite forty years of modest success, things did not always go so well for El Tri. In fact, their appearances at early World Cups were pretty abject. Nevertheless, that dark shadow cannot snuff out the bright light of the career of Antonio Carbajal, legendary goalkeeper.
Born June 7, 1929, in that never-ending stretch of concrete and smog sinking into Lake Texcoco known in Spanish as "El D.F." and English as "Mexico City," he got his start in professional soccer in 1948 for Club Espana. Sadly, the club folded two years later, but he signed on for Club Leon, where he enjoyed a prosperous 16 year career (and two Liga MX titles). He appeared at the 1948 Olympics in London, where Mexico lost in the first round to unheralded South Korea 5-3. Yes, that's right - they conceded five goals. The game was moderately close at 2:1 up until the 60 minute mark, when a Chung Kook-Chin put Mexico in a steep hole. It was a sign of things to come.
If you look at highlights of Carbajal from the time, he wasn't a bulky aerial presence like Ricardo Zamora and he may not have possessed the catlike reflexes of an Iker Casillas. Still, he played the angles well and positioned himself smartly. He also stayed back near his line, avoiding any easy lofted goals. His hands were excellent - one could suspect he covered his keeper gloves with glue because he seldom coughed up rebounds. His distribution was also very good for the time - he preferred rolling the ball wide to outside backs as opposed to downfield punts to nobody.
But was he successful? On the one hand, yes. His team qualified and appeared at several World Cups (Brazil 50, Switzerland 54, Sweden 58, Chile 62, and England 66). On the other hand, no. The most recent qualifying campaign aside, for Mexico there has almost always been big divide between their record in CONCACAF and versus the world. It was even more pronounced back then. A look at Carbajal's stats in qualifying show a stellar record: in 19 games, he won 15, drew 3, and only lost 1. That's a win percentage of 78%. His World Cup record was the opposite. In 11 games, he lost 8, tied 2, and only won a single game. Mexico conceded 24 goals in those games. That's a win percentage of .09% and a goals against average of 2.18.
So, you flippantly say, Carbajal was the king of the losers. Is he worth even remembering, let alone celebrating? Context is everything. When a team plays a superior side in soccer, who gets the best workout? The goalie. While Iker Casillas could probably play CandyCrush on his iPhone while tending the net for Spain, Carbajal's five World Cups for Mexico were sieges. In the 1950 World Cup, Mexico got hammered 4:1 by Yugoslavia and 4:0 by Brazil, but barely lost 2:1 to Switzerland. Fans now and then can look at those scorelines and ask: was the defense or the keeper to blame?
A closer look at the 4:1 loss to Yugoslavia shows where fault lies. Here's a video. The first goal came from a Mexican defender failing to clear a cross - Carbajal held his line well on the initial cross, and can hardly be faulted for not darting off his line in such a quick turn of events. For the third goal, Mexican defenders fail to close down Zeljko Cajkovski who takes his time and picks a spot before rifling it near post. The first game against host Brazil, the opening game of the tournament and in front of 82,000 fans, had followed a similar script. For the second goal, you could maybe fault Carbajal a bit for allowing a goal across him from a tough angle, but the defense in front of him should never have allowed the shot. The scoreline is bad, but even worse, Brazil hit the post six times. Antonio was only 21 years at the time, the youngest keeper of the tournament. He had beat out veteran Raul Cordoba during qualification to be a starter, but for what?
Confidence is everything, or so they say. After an abominable display, Carbajal could easily have retreated to the shelter of the Mexican league. How many topflight keepers have disappeared after an atrocious howler or a miserable tournament? Instead 1954, Carbajal made the World Cup roster again. However, Mexico again got a rotten draw, facing a group full of powerhouses Brazil and Yugoslavia, and a respectable France. Carbajal also faced competition from within: he was replaced for the first game against Brazil by Salvador Mota, seven years his senior and of Atlante fame. It was a blessing in disguise. Brazil crushed Mexico 5:0.
Brazil's second and third goals, both from distance, could be chalked up in part to Mota. Thus, Carbajal regained his place for the second game vs. France. At the time, Les Bleus featured legendary striker Raymond Kopa. The game did not start well. In the 19th minute, Mexican defenders allowed Jean Vincent to stroll into the box and pick a low corner. Just after half-time, Mexican defender Raul Cardenas deflected a skipping cross-shot past Carbajal. Still, Mexico did not toss in the towel. In the 54th minute, Jose Lamadrid capitalized on missed defensive header to fire home close and pull Mexico within a goal. In the 85th minute, Mexico looked to have earned its first ever point and a draw when Tomas Balcazar scored. However, it was not meant to be. In the 88th minute, defender Narciso Lopez dove in front of Jean Vincent's shot in the box and allegedly stopped it with his hand (even though his head was turned). Raymond Kopa calmly sent Carbajal the wrong way, and El Tri would have to wait.
In 1958, Mexico again got a tough lot. They were grouped with hosts Sweden and a very powerful Hungary side. They lost the first game against Sweden 3:0, falling largely to an Agne Simonsson brace. In terms of defense, it was new faces, but similar results. For the first goal, Mexico's defense failed to cut out a cross and mark a late-rushing Simonsson. The second goal was a penalty kick. The third goal, Simonsson had all day to pick his spot after a basic cutback from a teammate. The second game, though, will go down as Mexico's first ever point: a 1:1 draw with Wales. Wales looked headed for a win at 1-0, but Jaime Belmonte's 89th minute goal ensured Mexico shared the spoils. Yes, Mexico then went on to lose 4:0 to Hungary, but, ironically, Wales tied both Sweden and Hungary and advanced after a playoff win over Hungary. Today, we may see Wales as a lightweight (with a handful of stars), but at Sweden 58 they were no pushover.
In Chile 62, Mexico had a strong tournament. They narrowly lost their first game 2:0 to the Brazil of Pele and Garrincha. For long stretches, they actually took the game to Brazil and Carbajal made a few strong saves, including one full-stretch save from a long-distance shot and a reactive save from a point-blank header. The full game is actually available at Youtube. The second game against Spain was even closer. Mexico defended with aplomb for 89 minutes, but lost to a single goal by Joaquin Peiro scored at the 90th minute. Keep in mind this Spanish team featured Paco Gento, Luis Suarez, Ferenc Puskas, and Luis del Sol. They were no pushovers. Yes, the finishing was pretty poor, with lots of shots soaring over the goal, but Carbajal deserves some credit, coming off his line superbly to block a late-running Pachin. In reality,El Tri had lost two games, but was playing quite well. In the final game, they defeated Czechoslovakia 3:1 and earned Mexico it's first win ever at a World Cup. Even more impressive, they fought back from a goal down to do so.
England '66 was the last tournament for Carbajal. No longer a spring chicken, he lost his starting place to the excellent Ignacio Calderon (who played his club ball for Chivas). Mexico slugged out a 1:1 draw with France and lost respectably 2:0 to host England in the second game. Still, for the third game vs. Uruguay, the coach, perhaps for sentimental reasons, started Carbajal between the sticks. The result speaks for itself: Mexico failed to score a goal, but kept its first ever clean sheet at a World Cup. For a goalie who had suffered so much, he finally earned a reward and a nice sending off.
You'd have to be blind to not see a significant line of progress in both Carbajal's game and Mexico from 1950 to 1966. Baby steps, yes. But you have to start somewhere. And you have to count on somebody to stand between the posts. We'll never know for sure if really did get offered (and turn down) a shot at Real Madrid, but his international career was a testament to either mental toughness or masochism. Probably both. Today, many Tri fans couldn't even tell you Carbajal's first name. He's little more than two answers to World Cup trivia, sharing the records for most total goals conceded and most World Cup tournaments participated in. Still, he started and played on the first Mexican team to win a World Cup match, nick a point off a former champion, and keep a clean sheet. He helped Mexico take the first big step forward, even if it was preceded by quite a few stumbles.
Check out Elliott's useful audiobook, An Illustrated Guide to Soccer & Spanish, available at Amazon. He blogs about soccer at Futfanatico. He's written for The Classical, Yahoo, The Guardian, Fox Soccer, Howler Magazine, and others.