The Rise and Fall of the Gold-Medal Winning Mexico National Team
The Mexican football team made history on August 11, 2012. Luis Fernando Tena put up a U-23 squad full of talented players who participated in the Summer Olympics.
The Olympic tournament has never been easy on El Tri. In Barcelona in 1992 and Greece in 2004, they did not qualify to go to the knockout stage, and in Atlanta in 1996, they were eliminated in the quarterfinals.
But London was different. Mexico did not lose once and proved to have the guts and talent to overcome adversity. It had nothing to do with luck.
Tena's first rehearsal came in the 2011 Copa America. Mexico played with the U-23 team because the senior squad was playing in the Gold Cup in the United States.
It was the perfect opportunity to try new players, but this became an issue when eight of them were suspended before the first match because they were spotted with girls in their hotel rooms.
The team left the tournament soon. A disastrous 0-0-3 record, plus one goal for and four against, meant Mexico’s worst participation in the tournament.
Three months later, Guadalajara hosted the Pan American Games. The U-23 played at home and eventually won the gold medal, the first one since Winnipeg in 1999.
The team was better than it had been in a long time, and 2012 promised to bring even more success.
Back to winning ways
Mexico got to the 2012 CONCACAF Men's Olympic Qualifying Tournament as the favorite, and the players did not disappoint.
El Tri defeated Trinidad and Tobago 7-1, Honduras 3-0 and Panama 1-0, and were the only undefeated squad in the competition.
In the semifinals, Mexico eliminated Canada 3-1 and overcame Honduras in the final match 2-1, with a goal at the 116th minute by Miguel Ponce.
This tournament also meant redemption for Marco Fabian. The Chivas midfielder was one of the players who got a six-month suspension and a fine for the Copa America scandal.
This time, Fabian became a key element in Mexico’s offense and was the top scorer with five goals.
Hiram Mier established himself as one of the most promising defenders of his generation, along with Diego Reyes and Darvin Chavez.
Javier Aquino and Hector Herrera showed their skills in the midfield, as well as how important they were in keeping and distributing the ball.
They secured the ticket to London 2012, which meant it was time to compete against the best.
The Toulon Tournament gathers some of the best U-23 national teams. In the 2012 edition, Mexico played in Group B with France, Morocco and Belarus.
Their debut against Morocco could not be better. Marco Fabian scored a hat trick to help El Tri secure its first victory.
Two days later, France put Mexico in distress and defeated them 3-1. In the last match, Tena's boys grabbed three more points and advanced to the knockout stage.
Fabian was the hero of the group stage as he scored six goals out of Mexico's seven.
The semifinal match was tough. The Netherlands controlled the game in the first half. However, in the final 45 minutes, Candido Ramirez, Raul Jimenez and Fabian scored for Mexico, securing a 4-2 victory.
In the final, Turkey did not pose a threat for El Tri. Hector Herrera was again a very valuable asset in the midfield, while Ramirez, Mier and Alan Pulido gave the team a 3-0 win.
As expected, Fabian was the tournament’s top scorer, with seven goals, and Herrera was appointed Best Player.
A worrisome slump
Mexico had never had this kind of performance before any Olympic tournament. Tena knew the team needed to be at its best, so he scheduled some friendly games and brought three overage players: Oribe Peralta, Jose de Jesus Corona and Carlos Salcido.
The hot streak continued.
Mexico defeated Great Britain with a lone goal by Fabian.
But just three days later, El Tri lost for the first time in a month. With the help of Javi Martinez, Spain secured a 1-0 win.
Japan also surprised Mexico. The Asian squad was fast and unbalancing. Keigo Higashi's goal was the result of a collective effort, while Yuki Otsu's long-distance shot left Corona without a chance.
After three consecutive titles, Mexico was far from being the creative and explosive team it was in previous tournaments.
The moment of truth
South Korea was not an easy opponent. A scoreless draw showed that Mexico was still shaken.
But this was not the senior team; it was a squad of youngsters with a new mentality.
And so the players picked themselves up and defeated Gabon and Switzerland, regaining the competitiveness and eagerness they showed in the past.
They proved it further in the quarterfinals. Senegal overcame a two-goal disadvantage to tie the game. Far from being mentally worn out, El Tri managed to secure a 4-2 win in overtime.
Along came Japan, the same squad that defeated them before the Olympics. This time, Mexico took advantage of their momentum and proved to be a team with depth and structure. Fabian, Herrera, Salcido and Mier were instrumental.
For the first time ever, El Tri had secured a medal, but the players wanted the golden one badly.
Oribe Peralta took advantage of a gross mistake by Rafael and put Mexico ahead; he did it again in the second half.
Jose de Jesus Corona proved why he was the starting goalkeeper. He stopped every single shot from Neymar, Leandro Damiao and Oscar. With a great effort, Hulk defeated the Mexican keeper at stoppage time but it was not enough.
Mission accomplished. The Mexican anthem echoed in Wembley Stadium, and the golden generation was born.
As it happened with the members of the U-17 squads that secured the title in the 2005 and 2011 World Cups, many of the U-23 players did not make to the senior squad.
Those who did were relegated by the footballers who play abroad or only went in when those players could not travel all the way from Europe.
Javier Aquino was one of the few that earned the coach’s trust, but lost it quickly because he was not physically strong enough.
Diego Reyes had to wait until Javier Rodriguez proved to be out of shape.
Raul Jimenez is still waiting to be an undisputed starter, although he has been one of the most lethal players in the Liga MX, scoring 10 goals last season and having six to his count in the current tournament.
Marco Fabian has not appeared regularly.
Many of them got a chance at the 2013 Gold Cup; however, they did not perform well. Mexico lost for the first time in history to Panama; ultimately, Los Canaleros eliminated them in the semifinals.
What can be done?
There is no doubt that these players are talented. They are brave, they are not easily intimidated and they have a different mindset.
Do the U-23 players deserve more exposure with the senior team?
However, the managers from the clubs and the national team need to trust them and motivate them. Several generations have been abandoned in the process, despite proving their level.
It is time to give them continuity and stop thinking only in hierarchy. Talent and mindset can change Mexican football.
The success that the U-17 and U-23 squads have had is the result of years of training, as well as the players' eagerness to accomplish bigger and better things.
If the national team and the clubs' staffs leave those things unattended, there is no way these players can continue their development.
If Victor Manuel Vucetich trusts them, they will respond, the same way they did to Fernando Tena in London.
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