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Trials and Tribulations

Why isn’t el Tri better? Mexico is the most populous nation in the Spanish-speaking world, and soccer is by far the most popular sport. Youth leagues and impromptu street games dot the landscape from one peninsular extreme (Yucatan) to another (Baja California). The nation boasts a rabid fan base as well as a successful pro league that lures talent from around the globe. These are the ingredients for a world power.

Yet far from challenging Argentina and Brazil for hemispheric supremacy, Mexico has barely kept pace with the US for the past ten years. They have exited in the round of 16 in the past five World Cups. (The only Cups in which Mexico bettered that result were 1970 and 1986, at both of which they served as host country.) They have won just two of the past six The Mexico flag, weepingGold Cups (though they have a chance to make it two straight tonight), and they have never raised a Copa América. They have lost to Portugal, Uruguay, Argentina in the past two World Cups, and have tied such powers as Angola and South Africa. El Tri isn’t a bad team, but it isn’t very good either.

And while few fans are satisfied with the team’s results, it would be foolish to expect much more. If you look at the recent rosters, Mexico has not been blessed with transcendent talent, particularly on the attacking side of the field. Argentine transplant Guillermo Franco, one of those wonderful Heskeyan forwards who somehow base their game on not scoring, still managed to swing starting gigs in two separate World Cups. Cuauhtémoc Blanco, the most popular player of his generation, displayed an admirable creative flair and struck the ball beautifully, but he always moved as though he’d just finished off a lonche de carnitas and a pair of cigarettes.

The talent gap has been especially evident with the forwards the Mexican national team exports. Kikín Fonseca was the breakout player in Germany ‘06, which he parlayed into a four-year contract with Benfica. He lasted eight games. Nery Castillo excelled at the 2007 Copa América, but has scored a grand total of three goals in club play since then, while changing teams six times. Omar Bravo, previously a Tri mainstay, was voted to La Liga’s worst 11 during his single season at La Coruña. While the nation has produced a handful of quality defenders (Carlos Salcido and Rafa Márquez being the two most famous of the bunch), the Mexican forward typically goes to Europe only to return humbled.

With that in mind, it’s not much of a surprise that such a group fails to dominate Concacaf or compete with world powers. Opinions of el Tri are tinged with disappointment, which is a bit unfair; disappointment should be reserved for teams that could reasonably expect better results. Spain in the Raúl era was a disappointment. England disappoints on a biennial basis. Real Madrid has turned Champion’s League disappointment into a rite of spring. Mexico? They play to their talent.

Javier Aguirre, who took a break from his ongoing journey through the clubs of Spain’s second tier to coach his native country to its round of 16 exit in South Africa, alluded to this fact with a brutally frank assessment of his team’s chances heading into the 2010 World Cup:

There are a lot of expectations regarding the Mexican teams and then there are comments that go too far. Champions? Mexico is what it is, it was 15th in Germany, in Korea when I left it was 11th, and four years prior in France number 13, and four years prior in the United States, 13. Mexico has been bouncing between 10 and 15 in the last four World Cups…

Aguirre was right, both in his historical analysis and his implicit prediction, but such is a tough pill to swallow. Rather than accept mediocrity, Mexican fans float a number of alternative narratives to explain Mexico’s lack of success, all of them more comforting than, “We simply don’t have the horses”. One popular complaint holds that nosy club owners and TV execs (namely Emilio Azcárraga, the owner of Televisa and Club América) are to blame, sabotaging what would otherwise be a dominant squad. That might be worth considering if Mexico were consistently producing stars, if el Tri were less than the sum of its parts, but that’s not the case.

Another balm for the let-down Mexican fan is the tireless refrain, Jugamos como nunca, perdimos como siempre. (In English, “We played like never before, but we lost as we always do.”) You hear this in Mexico after virtually every tournament elimination. The implication is that the squad reached new heights of football greatness on the pitch, even if the scoreboard, damned stubborn thing that it is, doesn’t reflect it. Unfortunately, against the Argentinas of the world, it is a false claim; a more accurate (though less lyrical) mantra would be: Jugamos como siempre, perdimos como siempre.

In short, Mexico’s relative insignificance in international football isn’t a case of its players underachieving. The problem is something deeper: futbolísticamente, the entire nation underachieves. For close to a generation, Mexico simply has not produced world-class players, despite the best efforts of 110 million people. This is a much broader embarrassment.

But Aguirre’s gloomy diagnosis, while accurate enough through 2010, failed to anticipate the singularity of the generation currently coming of age.

The most obvious difference between the middling teams of years past and today’s squad is Chicharito. The Hugo Sánchez comparisons may be a bit premature, but he is the most lethal scorer lining up for Mexico since, well, Hugo Sánchez.

Beyond Man Utd’s beloved import, Giovani dos Santos is playing with a pace and aggressiveness that reflects his grooming at Barcelona far more than his debacle at Tottenham. After an impressive half-season at Racing Santander, he is being mentioned as a Sevilla transfer target. When he’s fit, Andres Guardado’s ability to test the keeper from a distance is unmatched by any recent Mexican national. Pablo Barrera wasn’t a favorite of Avram Grant’s this past season (which probably reflects well on Barrea), but his recent performance with el Tri resembles much more the winger whose darting runs sank France in South Africa than the West Ham bench-warmer. And none of these players is yet older than 25.

This group can soften up even a stout defense. Unlike the 2006 and 2010 World Cup teams, with the current version of el Tri, fans can expect a touch of brilliance and an occasional offensive explosion. Representing the latter category: Mexico tallied 14 goals against Cuba, Costa Rica, and El Salvador during the group stage of the Gold Cup. The former: Hernandez’s game-winning deflection with his instep against Guatemala, off of a threaded low cross from Barrera, was sublime. Guardado’s sidewinder volley from the corner of the box versus Costa Rica, which drew the reaction of “This is poetry without a pen!” from the Univision crew, was even better.

Of course, the defeated opponents named above are not an impressive lot. The US is, as always, a stiffer test, but even a win in the final in the Gold Cup on enemy turf doesn’t count as a concrete achievement so much as a potential frustration to be sidestepped. If Hernandez and the rest can’t lead el Tri to something more substantial than a Gold Cup trophy over the next decade, that will indeed qualify them as underachievers, and Mexico will be right to be disappointed.

Despite five years of residence in Mexico, Patrick Corcoran is rooting for the US in tonight’s final. He blogs about politics, security, and (occasionally) soccer at Gancho.

In the second most popular sport in the poll, boxing, Mexico currently has twice as many world champions as any other country.

Of course, if this rant is any indication, Castillo measures success merely by playing on a team outside of Mexico, rather than performing well with them.

This misjudgment doubles as a rather damning critique of his performance in South Africa; inexplicably, Andrés Guardado and Javier Hernandez each played less than half the minutes that Mexico was on the field. Had el Tri beaten Uruguay instead of falling 1-0, a game in which Guardado played just 45 minutes and Hernandez half an hour, they would have had Uruguay’s relatively comfortable path the semifinals.

Ironically, the traditionally solid back line could turn into a weakness; the defensive core of Márquez, Salcido, Ricardo Osorio, and Francisco Rodríguez, with 33 World Cup appearances and more than 300 caps between them, will all be on the plus side of 30 by October.

The rumors of match-fixing do take some of the enjoyment out off the throttlings, though.

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Trials and Tribulations

by Patrick Corcoran · June 25, 2011

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