A Bright Future for Mexico or another false dawn?

(Article first featured on In Our Humble Opinion 31/08/12)

This summer’s footballing successes for Mexico have been a much needed lift for a country besieged by a violent drug war that has devastated the country for almost the last 5 years.   Around 43,000 have been killed as rival drug cartels vie for regional control and clash against government forces seeking to combat drug trafficking.  The conflict shows no signs of dying down, with more than half of the victims killed in the last 18 months.   So the exploits of the national team has, to a certain degree, given Mexicans something to cheer about.

They started things off with a 9th Gold cup win, coming back from two goals down to beat bitter rivals USA 4-2 in the final.  Player of the tournament, Javier Hernandez, followed on from an impressive debut Premier league season with 7 goals as he fired Mexico to the title.  

The U20 squad then went on to claim 3rd place in the recent U20 World cup.  I was somewhat surprised by how far they got but they matured throughout the tournament and had good strength in depth.  Key performers were combative midfield general Jorge Enriquez, who picked up the Bronze Ball, and Ulises Davila, a tricky forward who was always a handful for opposition defenders and has just signed for Chelsea.  Fellow striker, Erick Torres, who has been linked to Manchester United, skilful Alan Pulido and super-sub Edson Rivera all produced flashes of potential too.  Many of these players also featured in Mexico’s youthful and experimental side at the Copa America.  Aside from the scandal that saw 8 players suspended before the tournament (for bringing prostitutes to their hotel…rascals) and despite losing all three games by a single goal to nil, the tournament will have provided vital experience and they will be encouraged by some decent performances in tight games.

Arguably the most celebrated victory, however, came in the form of the U17 world cup which they successfully hosted.   100,000 fans in the Estadio Azteca and countless more around the country watched their young charges beat Uruguay 2-0 to lift the trophy.  Their second title in just 7 years at this level, Mexico side won all seven games in stylish fashion with the semi-final victory against much-fancied Germany particularly sticking in the memory.  Trailing the game at 2-1 with just 15 minutes to go, they won the game 3-2 thanks to a last minute bicycle kick winner from heavily bandaged Julio Gomez.  The Golden Ball winner, who has already made his first team debut for Pachuca, had clashed heads badly in the build-up to the equaliser and made a spectacular Terry Butcher-esque return to field to send Mexico into the final.

The squad also contained many other impressive youngsters.  Carlos Fierro was Mexico’s main goal threat with 4 goals and also claimed the Bronze Ball.  A real goal mouth poacher with great composure he has inevitably drawn comparisons with Chicharito.  Deep lying midfield lynchpin Jorge Espericueta  picked up the Silver Ball as the left footed metronome dictated the tempo of the game.  Richard Sanchez looked a good shot stopper between the sticks and captain Antonio Briseño was a rock at the centre of defence.  Twinkle toed winger Giovani Casillas always caused problems with his pace and trickery, chipping in with 3 goals and 2 assists.  Forward Marco Bueno is reportedly a target for Liverpool and had a decent tournament too.

Does this victory, as well the other promising performances, suggest that Mexico have the players to hail a new golden era of Mexican football?  Midfield veteran Gerardo Torrado certainly agrees and thinks it could “be a boom time for Mexican football” and “could be our strongest ever generation”.  However, one must exercise some caution when making predictions based on performances at this level.  Mexico’s U17 world cup winning squad of 2005 were hailed as a fantastic generation and for the most part this early promise has failed to pay dividends. 

Star man Giovani Dos Santos was the darling of Barcelona and seemed to have the world at his feet.  There were a few raised eyebrows when he was allowed to leave to Tottenham for a fairly reasonable price and I’m sure many at White Hart Lane thought they had pulled off a massive transfer coup.  But alas, the precocious talent stuttered and failed to establish himself in the first team, resulting in loan spells at Ipswich, Galatasaray and Racing Santander.  Despite this slump in his career he regularly starts for the national team, even scoring the goal of the tournament at the Gold Cup.

Another hyped man who has so far failed to adapt to the premiership is Carlos Vela.  Winning the Golden Ball in 2005 earned him a move to Arsenal and everything seemed to be going well in his blossoming career.  However, despite some impressive performances in the Carling Cup, he has never really cut it in the Premiership for either Arsenal or West Brom.

Admittedly, both men are still just 22 and it would be churlish to say they are already past it (if anything just to keep my dream alive that I too have time to make it).  But the fact remains that two players who looked to become world beaters have definitely failed to live up to their lofty billings and therefore one must not jump to too many conclusions from Mexico’s latest win.

A look at the current squad though suggests that, for the moment at least, fans have a right to be quietly confident about their nation’s prospects.  Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez has a phenomenal strike rate of 21 goals in 29 games and already looks at home in the Premiership.  Skillful winger Andres Guardado has already represented his country 74 times at the young age of 24 and provides the spark in midfield.  Veterans Rafael Marquez and Gerardo Torrado bring plenty of experience to the squad and, at 32, could both have another World Cup in them.  So if the likes of Dos Santos and Vela can realise their undoubted potential and members of the U20 and U17 squads continue to develop and successfully progress to the first team, Mexico certainly have reason to be positive about their future.   

The next three years will be crucial, with the London Olympics next year and the Confederations Cup in 2013 giving some of the younger players the opportunity to gain important tournament experience in preparation for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.  It remains to be seen whether they are capable of realising their potential and can progress past their usual glass ceiling of the Round of 16, and make it to the quarter finals for only the 3rd time in their history.  Time will tell whether this promising generation can become Hispanic heroes or merely Latin Lee Hendries.