Javier Hernandez should have been on the field by now. It's an unseasonably sunny morning in early May, and Hernandez is an hour late at the obscure east London stadium because his driver confused both the pickup and dropoff locations. Hernandez dislikes delays. Poor punctuality has always been among his pet peeves. But this late arrival is an apt metaphor for his European football career, during which he's frequently been held off the field through no fault of his own.
His schedule for the afternoon had already been packed tighter than the crowds at Old Trafford during his early days with Manchester United. He was supposed to shoot a commercial for Adidas, conduct two interviews in Spanish and one in English and pose for photo shoots for two websites—all in the course of three hours. Now he's expected to do it all in two. But Hernandez, who's better known as Chicharito, "The Little Pea," is a master of making the most of limited minutes. For much of his career he's been a "super sub," coming off the bench in the second half to demoralize dead-legged defenders. Until this sluggish season with West Ham, he'd been one of Europe's most efficient strikers.
If the delay has irked him, he's hidden it well by the time he strides into a manager's office that's been converted into a hair and makeup studio. He says hello to everyone he encounters and shakes a half-dozen hands. Hernandez smiles politely as people around him exchange pleasantries about the weather. He's just a few weeks from 30, and he doesn't need long in this chair. Wrinkles have barely begun to form fault lines in his forehead, and his hair holds up the stereotype of European footballers: Every piece had already been sprayed into submission, and it's cropped closely enough to convince you that he rarely lets 72 hours lapse between haircuts. Hernandez emerges from the room donning orange cleats, black shorts and a green Mexico jersey.
On June 17, he'll put on the same kit in Russia to represent Mexico for the third time in the World Cup. In his European career, Hernandez has seldom complained about setbacks; and he's celebrated success with an uncommon humility. Although he's been a lethal scorer in the three best leagues in Europe, and therefore the world, he's rarely been a regular in the starting 11. The same is true for his international career, where he is El Tri's leading scorer but will once again battle to be on the field at the first whistle this summer. He's arguably the most famous Mexican man in the world, and it's that combination of stardom and striving that makes him inarguably the nation's most beloved athlete.
"He's never dropped off in the face of trouble," says Fernando Schwartz, a Mexican journalist for Fox Sports who has known Hernandez for more than a decade. "He's fighting all the time, and when he wins, he shares that success. He's a symbol for Mexicans, and especially Mexican immigrants, who work hard all around the world."
Hernandez descends the stairs of the 6,000-seat stadium. The Chicharito show is ready to start. At long last, he places his feet on the pitch.
When he is on the pitch, Hernandez moves with purpose. This field, at Chigwell Construction Stadium, which is home to cash-strapped fifth-tier club Dagenham & Redbridge, is monastically maintained but still suffering from an embarrassing number of brown blemishes. Two dozen people surround Hernandez as he moves across it, and yet he slips around them in a blink, a seemingly silent series of steps that has confounded scores of Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga defenders for the past decade.
When he reaches the top of the box on the opposite side, he pauses and poses. At 5'7", he's about a half-foot shorter than the prototypical striker, but he can still strike an imposing presence. He shoots his shoulders back, puffs out his chest and sets a stone-cold stare toward the camera. Those eyes, green with brown at their borders, are part of the lineage that has helped make him world-famous.
Hernandez's maternal grandfather, Tomas Balcazar, was a forward with the Mexican club Chivas in the late 1940s and 1950s. The group would later be known as the Campeonisimo, "the ultimate champion," for its eight championships. Balcazar also scored for El Tri in a loss to France in the 1954 World Cup. Hernandez's father, Javier Sr., was part of the 1986 national side that reached the World Cup quarterfinals on its home turf, though he did not play. His career at club level lasted nearly two decades. He was given the nickname Chicharo, "The Pea," because of his green eyes, and he passed both his birth name and his nickname to his boy.
From his father and grandfather, Chicharito inherited not only an obsession with perfection on the pitch but also an understanding that most of what matters in life happens off it. When he'd walk through town with his father, Chicharito would hear the cries of "Chicharo" and witness women fishing cameras out of purses and boys begging for autographs. In newspapers and on TV, he'd see his father's face. Now, as Chicharito climbs the bleachers and eases into a stiff seat for an interview, he reflects on how his father taught him humility without words. "Those were the first moments when I realized that they were important people," Chicharito says of his father and grandfather. "Inside my house, they didn't live like that. They were humble. That was a part of life. It wasn't the whole of life."
On some Sundays, when everyone was home, the family would have a picnic and play a match at a field near the airport. When Chicharito was nine, he joined C.D. Guadalajara. At 15, he inked his first professional contract. His future seemed a foregone conclusion. But in 2005, he was left out of the Mexican U17 team that went on to win the FIFA World Cup. With his club, Chivas, he managed just one goal in 23 appearances from 2006 to the first half of the 2008 season. (In Liga MX, the year is divided into two tournaments, the Apertura and the Clausura.) He considered walking away from the game for good—"Yeah, I almost quit," Chicharito says—but his agent and his parents convinced him to give the club six more months.
"I spoke to my parents and I asked them if this is really my path," Chicharito says. "And they told me to be patient, to keep fighting, to keep working and to never lose the faith in myself. They said that in the future very good things were coming. And obviously, they were right."
Two years later, he was trotting onto the field at Old Trafford. When Manchester United announced his signing in 2010, the club website received 50,000 registrations from Mexico within 24 hours. In Mexico, a year's supply of Manchester United Chicharito shirts sold out in two months. After a dominant debut season—in which he scored 20 goals and was named the International Federation of Football History & Statistics' "World Goalgetter 2011"—he became a European sensation, too. Biographies were hurriedly pushed off to presses, and songs were written too. One fan penned an ode to the Little Pea, set to the tune of the Beatles' "Let it Be."
When I find myself in times of trouble
Chicharito scores for me
Javier Hernandez, Little Pea
And when we need a striker
Sir Alex turns to him
Get out and get the job done,
Little Pea, Little Pea,
Little Pea, Little Pea,
Javier Hernandez, Little Pea
Hernandez seemed destined for stardom, but instead his career has been defined by fits and starts. Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United's legendary manager, loved Hernandez like a son. But he never started him regularly. And when David Moyes replaced a retiring Ferguson in 2013, Hernandez's minutes whittled to nothing. With the club, Chicharito scored 37 league goals in 49 starts and 103 appearances. According to Opta, an advanced analytics website, his minutes-per-goal ratio (130.2) is the fifth-best in Premier League history among players who have scored at least 20 goals. Jose Mourinho, who is now Manchester United's manager, said last year that he never would have let Hernandez get away. But of course, by then it was too late.
Hernandez spent the 2014-15 season on loan to Real Madrid, where his slippery style helped form a perfect partnership with Cristiano Ronaldo's flashiness up front. In perhaps his most memorable moment in European football, he converted a pass from Ronaldo to break the deadlock in the 88th minute against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League quarter-final. The next season, with the German club Bayer Leverkusen, he began his best stretch in Europe, scoring 28 goals in 45 starts and earning Bundesliga Player of the Month five times. This season started with a promising return to the the Premier League with West Ham United. But Moyes replaced Slaven Bilic as manager in November, and Hernandez has once again seen his role reduced.
"I'm not the manager, so I'm not going to put the starting 11 up," Hernandez says. "But my work, my hard work, my extra work, my good mood, the way I see things positively—all of that is in my hands. I still suffer and feel pain with some decisions, though, because in this life and in this sport, you expect rewards for working hard. But life has taught me to be very patient."
In interviews, Chicharito speaks like he plays. At times, he appears almost pensive.
When he speaks Spanish, he says "gracias a Dios"—"thank God"—as frequently as most people mutter "um." But ask a question that strikes a chord, about football strategy, for example, and he'll exclaim "Exactly!" and launch into a response for several minutes or more. What he's most passionate about these days is living in the moment. Even in the midst of a disappointing season, he doesn't dwell on hypotheticals. Ask him about how else his tenure in Europe could have turned out, and he'll answer honestly but not bitterly.
"Yes, my career would probably have been different if things had gone another way, if Sir Alex had stayed on a few more years," he says. "But the thing is, the if doesn't exist. We're speaking about something that is never going to happen. We like to complicate our lives. Sometimes you feel like nothing is enough; you always want more, more, more. In your job. In money. In relationships. That's why I'm living in the present."
At the stadium in east London, Hernandez is perched in a white seat among a sea of red ones. With his green shirt on, he is providing the missing color of the Mexican flag—and the symbolism isn't lost on him. In its past six appearances in the World Cup, Mexico has managed to emerge from the group stages only to be eliminated in the round of 16. Perhaps the most important mission of Chicharito's career is to see how much further he can carry those colors.
His experience with national futbol in Mexico helped prepare him for the challenges he'd confront in Europe. In 2005, he was omitted from the 2005 U-17 World Cup-winning team—a moment that strengthened his resolve. "That was a moment that defined his career. He received a punch in the face. He went down," says Miguel Pardo, a Mexican journalist who has covered the national team for two decades. "And when he went down, his first thought was to get up and keep fighting. He went to Manchester United and fought; to Real [Madrid] and fought; to Bayer [Leverkusen] and fought. I think that moment defined his football spirit forever."
But even though Hernandez has been in Europe for a decade, his connection with his countrymen remains strong. After his first season with Manchester United, he tearfully accepted an ambassadorship for tourism in his hometown of Jalisco, Guadalajara. And in 2012, he became Mexico's third ambassador to the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund. At events across the country, UNICEF officials and volunteers have marveled at the way he connects with kids. Instead of leading them in drills on the football fields, he'll lead them in silly games where he zigzags around them so that no child feels left out. When he visits classrooms, he eschews standing or sitting in chairs and instead slides right down onto the floor so that the kids can climb all over him.
"Many times in Mexico, soccer players have a very jet-setting lifestyle," says UNICEF communications officer Daniel Gonzalez. "Chicharito is not that way. He connects to the people in a more personal level. They don't see him as an icon but as someone close to them, almost one of them."
For Hernandez, charitable work is an anecdote to the celebrity culture he can't quite escape. He mostly lives a quiet life. He doesn't enjoy drinking, partying or even going to the movies, preferring to spend time at home with his family, who have moved around the world with him. In an interview early in his career, he declared his favorite food was a banana and his favorite drink was water. But despite his seeming disinterest in offering anything exciting to them, the tabloids have still tracked his every move, especially obsessing over his romantic relationships.
He is also not immune from the obsession some fans feel for the national team. "I'm very grateful for my life," he says, "but my life is not better or worse than another human being's. The value of all human beings is the same. We are equal, and we are different. Culture, religion, anything—we are different, but equal. Sometimes in my country, and in many places around the world, they put their lives and all their pleasures on the national team. And I'm not criticizing that. But we must always move forward."
Still, he admits that nothing in football gives him as much satisfaction as playing for El Tri. In the past, he's referred to Chivas, his first club, as the love of his life. He's said that every team since is like a girlfriend—maybe he leaves her; maybe she leaves him. But the one exception is El Tri. "The national team is like my mother," he says. "It's always going to be there. I'm always going to cheer for my country. I'm not always with them, but we always care for each other. That love and that connection are forever."
A year ago, in a friendly against Croatia, with his parents and grandparents looking on, he became Mexico's all-time leading scorer. To many international observers, his accomplishments come with an asterisk. They refer to his style of play as "goal poaching." But in a game in which goals are at a premium, criticizing the source of any seems counterintuitive. "People say he's not technically good," Pardo says. "I don't give a damn about that. He scores goals, which is what he's paid to do. People will re-evaluate what he means to Mexican soccer and to the national team when he retires. People will say, 'Oh my God, he was so good.' Soccer will pay Javier. His big prize is coming—the respect, the history, the legacy."
As the day winds down, Hernandez rises and returns to the field. His obligations are over, and an assistant trails him with an array of shirts he can change into. But he opts to remain in his uniform for a little while longer. He's on the pitch. He's wearing his country's colors. He's 5,500 miles from where he was born, but he never seems that far from home.