Writing for ESPN earlier in the week, David Faitelson asked the question “Where do Mexico belong?”
The journalist explained the issue by suggesting that El Tri are torn between two footballing words. One sees them ambling around in the Central and North American region, treading water in the mediocrity that is CONCACAF.
The other sees them going toe-to-toe with some of the most accomplished national teams in the world, and gracing tournaments such as this summer’s Confederations Cup.
I believe Mexico’s sporting challenges can be broken down into three sharp examinations. First, they must beat the myriad of teams that comprise CONCACAF, then, they must overcome the United States, the other big dog in the yard.
Finally, the world awaits, and Mexico surely must be looking to finally assert themselves among the globe’s most elite national sides.
An Unconvincing Reign
The perception is that Mexico has struggled with step one in recent times. Indeed, while they have only lost three games since Jose Manuel de la Torre took the helm as national team coach in 2011, too many of those games have ended in draws.
2013 has seen a remarkable run of mediocrity. Mexico has laboured in the Hexagon, the CONCACAF Qualifying group that is usually so straight forward, and have only managed one win—a sluggish triumph against Jamaica in Kingston, amidst a whole swathe of unimpressive draws.
Still, their resiliency ought to be commended, and de la Torre has succeeded in adding solidity to the Mexican side.
Some say this is at the expense of a fluidity of attacking movement, and that in attempting to improve their shaky defence, de la Torre has actually undermined Mexico’s major strength, their pace and vitality in attack.
A Slide into Mediocrity?
Faitelson didn’t hold off with his criticism, suggesting that the national team “cannot find its high level of play”, that it wanders aimlessly around the field of play and lacks ambitions and ideas. Indeed, there is a sense to which the CONCACAF region has held back the national side. The seeming lack of genuine opposition beyond America has perhaps allowed Mexico to stagnate, and to become complacent in its approach.
Despite indifferent results to date, the likelihood is that Mexico will still be present in Brazil next summer—they and the States would have to flounder so horribly to miss out on the World Cup.
Japan is an example of a side that has had to respond to the improved talent in their region and adapt accordingly, making them, in principle, a stronger threat at major international tournaments. The intrinsic competitiveness of Europe and South America means that squads are constantly tested against teams of threatening ability; this encourages adaption and innovation.
At least with regards to step two, achieving success against the United States, this current crop of Mexicans are ticking all of the boxes.
Another False Dawn?
However, all of this ought to be taken with a pinch of salt. Mexican fans have known many false dawns in recent history, and generations have promised excellence, emerged to great fanfare, only to disappear and drift away having achieved very little.
Is this current generation just another false dawn, another clutch of false promises which, in time, will disappoint and bewilder just like those that came before?
I suspect not, and I am quietly confident that this might be the tournament, the stage, where Mexico’s immense potential is finally realised, and where their talented individuals perform in company with big names at a senior international competition.
Mixed first impressions from the man in charge
De la Torre’s time as boss thus far has been characterised by some odd decision making and some bizarre experiments throughout the team. I wholly commend the work of Kevin McCauley with SB Nation in his article outlining the manager’s interesting stewardship so far.
In his piece, McCauley charts the various positions that have proved difficult for de la Torre to fill, and the multitude of characters he has dragged up to take a look at and then discard. While the list makes for interesting reading, it must be galling for Mexican fans to stumble over the talent that is going to waste or being neglected, and imagine how things might have been.
The impression I get is that the speculation and the experimentation is coming to an end. Perhaps de la Torre is finally ready, has at last realised, that the future is taking its inexorable march, it’s moving towards its inevitable reality, and that he must fall in.
Diego Reyes, indicative of talent waiting in the wings
Take Diego Reyes for example. One of de la Torre’s key struggles has been the correct identification of his first choice centre-back pairing. This is what I wrote about the situation in a recent article for Bleacher Report:
Veteran Rafael Marquez was once a sterling defender, now 34, however, his best days were evidently behind him long before de la Torre decided to give him a final swansong in the national side. Similarly, Francisco "Maza" Rodriguez has long been discarded by the majority of occasional observers of the Mexican (or German) game. Nonetheless, Maza is de la Torre’s captain, and rarely an imposing one at that.
Reyes has long seemed like the long term solution, but only recently has the manager seen fit to integrate him into his plans. Still only 20, the centre-back is already an astute reader of the game, possesses excellent aerial ability and has the maturity and composure to play the ball out from defence and instigate attacks.
His talents have already been spotted by Portuguese giants FC Porto—almost always a good gauge for upcoming players from across the Atlantic—and the youngster makes his move to Europe this summer. Having now begun to find his way into de la Torre’s plans, the defender looks likely to feature in the Confederations Cup, meaning that the Dragons will get a chance to examine their investment sooner rather than later.
Olympic Heroes Leading the Charge
Reyes was part of the Mexico U23 team that so impressed in London last summer, earning the gold medal after victory against Confederations Cup opponents Brazil in the final. I imagine this triumph, and that famous final victory against Brazil, will have imbued a generation with confidence, and the belief that a similar upset could well be possible for the senior team this summer.
Having fallen behind the United States during the last decade, Mexico looked to change their approach to international competition. They redeveloped their youth structure and began actively building towards a more ambitious future.
The Olympic squad was brimming with exciting players, and surely offers a vast reservoir of talents for de la Torre to select from. Alongside Reyes, youngsters like Hiram Mier, Raul Jimenez and Marco Fabian have demonstrated composure and maturity beyond their slender years, and surely, if their progress continues, will be hopeful of promotion to the World Cup squad next summer.
In the more immediate future, a de la Torre has a number of stars at his disposal who could form the basis of a thoroughly exciting side. Considering the team’s attacking talent alone, Mexico have the capacity to forge one of the world’s most delicious, fluid offensive lines.
Andres Guardado, Javier Hernandez and Giovani dos Santos are young players who already have swathes of international experience behind them. Time and again they have demonstrated their elegance and assuredness in the famous green of Mexico.
Guardado, ‘The Young Marvel’, can, at times, dazzle with his pace and trickery down the left flank, and in spells during the recent friendly draw with Nigeria showed his ability to strike genuine fear in the hearts of defenders.
While Chicharito has perhaps been overlooked a little in the furor that has surrounded Robin van Persie’s first season at Old Trafford, the prodigal poacher has lost none of his zest for a firm finish. The young striker still has all the characteristics of an expert striker—and also demonstrated his worth in the contest with the Super Eagles, scoring two and impressing with his positioning, finishing and movement.
As for dos Santos, his is threatening to be a story of unrealised potential and forgotten talent. Released a little early for comfort by Barcelona, he flopped under a succession of managers at White Hart Lane with Tottenham Hotspur, and has only recently shown the class that made him such a revered talent at youth level.
For Mexico he remains a key player, and has given indicators of his genius over the last few years, not least with an extraordinary goal in the 2011 Gold Cup final against the United States.
De la Torre has often seen fit to play dos Santos out on the flanks, but I believe this is a misguided venture. I imagine I am in the majority in thinking that Gio’s ability is best revealed when playing as a No. 10, this is a position where Mexico could benefit from his talents and it is one of my hopes for the Confederations Cup that Ronaldinho’s protégé will get the chance to shine in his favourite position.
A Portent of Promise
As I wrote recently, I can see the Confederations Cup being a portent for the promise of next summer in Brazil. Despite their recent indifference, La Verde have strength in depth, and de la Torre has preserved the solidarity of a tight-knit squad.
Veteran defender Carlos Salcido, who has been used in midfield in recent times, has declared that the team will discover, or at least reveal, its true potential in their opening game against Italy.
The talent is certainly there, and a nation will be praying that de la Torre can finally pull his various threads together and pull off that crucial opening result against the Italians.
The Confederations Cup allows Mexico to rub shoulders with the elite, and look them in the eye, as equals.