Carlos Vela: The Vanishing of Mexico's Most Promising Star

William GishAnalyst IJuly 12, 2011

LONDON - SEPTEMBER 23:  Carlos Vela of Arsenal celebrates scoring his second goal during the Carling Cup Third Round match between Arsenal and Sheffield United at the Emirates Stadium on September 23, 2008 in London, England.  (Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Images)
Phil Cole/Getty Images

Two types of stars exist. There are those that, upon reaching a terminal point, explode in an enormous ball of fire, burning more brightly than an entire galaxy for a brief period. These are the massive stars.

On the other end of the spectrum sit those stars that, upon reaching a terminal point, die by shrinking to a shadow of their former selves and essentially vanishing into oblivion. These are the ordinary stars.

Mexican star Carlos Vela emerged on the international stage in the summer of 2005, at the FIFA U-17 World Cup. During that tournament, the prodigal winger/striker nabbed the Golden Boot by scoring five goals.

Along with teammate Giovani dos Santos, Vela led El Tricolor to victory in the tournament. It was the first time in Mexico’s history that The Aztecs won such a tournament, and it signaled the arrival of a new golden generation of Mexican players.

In winning the Golden Boot, Vela showed as much creativity as he did goal-scoring ability. He proved a dangerous threat from the wings. With his short, controlled dribble and mature ability to read plays, Vela could pass, score or generate an attack with equal aplomb.

All of this, at the ripe old age of 16.

Vela’s performance in the U-17 tournament attracted the attention of various European clubs. In November of 2005, he became Mexico’s most high-profile signing ever in England at the time, penning a contract with Arsenal, one of the EPL’s famed “Big Four.” 

El Tri’s most promising talent looked poised to become his country’s most globally famous attacking player. But things went wrong from the start for Vela at Arsenal.

First, English work-permit restrictions on players from countries outside the European Union prevented Vela from playing in the fall of 2005.

Out of frustration, and a desire to develop their young star through regular league play, Arsenal loaned Vela to Spanish second league side Celta de Vigo in February 2006. He was returned almost immediately without playing a single game.

The subsequent two seasons saw Vela on loan to two different Spanish clubs, first Salamanca, in 2006-07, then Osasuna, in 2008-09. The Mexican starlet performed well at Salamanca, racking up eight goals and 15 assists in 32 matches across all competitions.

With Salamanca, Vela showed his ability to score goals and, to a much larger degree, his ability to create opportunities for his teammates. The young Aztec possesses an innate ability to draw defensive players to him in such a way that creates space for his teammates.

In the subsequent season, Vela made the transition from the Spanish second league to La Liga. His statistics from that season—three goals and four assists—reflect a difficult transition, though Vela was only 18 at the start of the 2007 season, and would surely develop quickly with top flight experience.

Unfortunately, such experience would elude him. Wenger demanded the return of Vela in the spring of 2008 and proceeded to marginalize the player for three seasons, all the while talking up the Mexican’s talents in the press when given the opportunity.

All told, Vela made 29 league performances for Arsenal between August 2008 and January 2011, and 61 performances across all competitions. His playing time diminished with each subsequent season.

In 2008-09, he made 14 league appearances with the Gunners. In 2009-10, this number dropped to 11, and finally to four in 2010-11. In this time, Vela scored 11 goals and managed six assists in all appearances, scoring at a rate of one goal per 5.5 games and assisting one goal for every 10.1 games.

Despite his increasing marginalization at the hands of the Gunners, Vela’s rate of goals in England actually eclipses his rate of goals in Spain, in which country he managed to score once per every 5.8 matches.

However, Vela assisted a goal every 3.4 games in Spain, managing an assist every other game with Salamanca. 

The reasons for Arsenal’s marginalization of Vela are many, from injuries and lack of experience to the emergence of Theo Walcott and the purchase of Marouane Chamakh.

In January of 2011, the dumb luck of circumstance knocked Vela’s career off balance once more. Signed to a loan deal with West Bromwhich Albion, Vela looked poised to finally gain the experience he needed to finally come into his own.

Yet just weeks after Baggies manager Roberto Di Matteo signed Vela, the club sacked the gaffer and replaced him with Roy Hodgson. Hodgson had much less use for Vela than Di Matteo had planned.

Of West Brom’s final 15 games, Vela appeared in only eight, and played fewer than 20 minutes in four of those matches.

Still, Vela managed to score in two consecutive matches, despite playing only 19 minutes in one and a paltry nine in the other. It seems that, no matter how little use his managers have for him, Vela is determined to not less us forget just how much promise he has.

But therein lies the problem. Filled with promise, Vela needs regular playing time to make good on that promise. His increasingly diminished standing in the eyes of his flaky managers created something of an exigent situation in summer of 2011, a potential critical point in the winger’s career.

Vela figured prominently in El Tri’s World Cup 2010 squad, and made some important performances for the team during the fall of 2010. Despite being banned from the team for sixth months due to excessive partying, Vela stood eligible to join the team’s ultimately victorious squad at the CONCACAF 2011 Gold Cup tournament.

Vela did not make Mexico’s squad for that tournament, and saw his standing on the team quickly eclipsed by Aldo de Nigris, who took his place. A striker for Mexico Primera Division squad Monterrey, de Nigris scored four goals during the CONCACAF tournament.

What’s worse, recently reported Fulham’s intentions to sign de Nigris. If the Mexican striker becomes a hit in England like El Tri teammate and elephant in the room Javier Hernandez, Vela faces the exponentially increased risk of missing out on international competition, formerly the sole light of his recently bleak career.

Two primary explanations for why Vela failed to make El Tri’s final squad for the CONCACAF Gold Cup made the rounds. The most popular holds that Arsenal refused to allow him to play in the tournament.

This is a neat way to explain this problem away while preserving Vela’s reputation, but it seems as though the truth tells a different story. According to an article in the Daily Mail, Mexico technically holds the right to force Arsenal to release Vela for the tournament, since Mexico a member nation of CONCACAF.

By these rules, Arsenal holds the right to refuse the release of Vela for the Copa America tournament, as Mexico constitutes a guest nation in that tournament. What it comes down to, then, is that Mexico coach Jose Manuel de la Torre ultimately decided that Vela’s lack of playing time during the 2010-11 season made him a less attractive choice than de Nigris.

Whether the future will be kinder to Vela than his career thus far remains unclear. It seems Wenger intends to keep his Mexican prodigy for next season, though the presence of Robin Van Persie, Walcott and recently signed Ivorian star Gervinho indicates another season of bench warming for Vela.

Despite these bleak circumstances, it pays to remember that Vela is only 22 years old. De Nigris may eclipse him in the favor of De La Torre for the time being, though come time for the 2014 World Cup, Vela will be 25 and de Nigris 31.

If Wenger finds a regular position for Vela, or if the young star can find his way out of Arsenal and to a prominent position at a different club, he may yet make good on his promise.

These days, when you think of the Mexican National Team, chances are you think of Chicarito and Giovani dos Santos, or Rafael Marquez and Andres Guardado, or maybe even Pablo Barrera and Memo Ochoa. Then after all of those players, you remember that guy who won the Golden Boot at the 2005 U-17 World Cup and you wonder, where’d he go?

Whether Vela turns out to be a massive star, and explodes in a ball of fire that burns more brilliantly than the rest, or vanishes into himself like your garden-variety star, remains to be seen. But circumstance has been unkind to the wunderkind who was once Mexico’s most promising player.