By Paul Gardner
Is this, at last, Mexico's Magic Moment? More than that -- is now the time when the full value of Mexican soccer is beginning to show itself, when this soccer-loving nation will begin to pull its weight on the world scene?
Over the past three weeks Mexico has won two important international tournaments. Its senior team took the Concacaf Gold Cup with a convincing 4-2 win over the United States. And on Sunday, just two days ago, the Mexican boys took the Under-17 World Cup with a 2-0 victory over Uruguay.
We’ll go back to last year. To the news in May last year that England’s top club, Manchester United, had signed Javier Hernandez, Chicharito, from Chivas Guadalajara.
ManU’s first Mexican, of course it was -- but so what? Plenty of young foreigners get signed by English clubs, only for them to waste away on the bench or in reserve games, while the coach sings their praises but never puts them in the first team.
The absolutely classic example is another Mexican, Carlos Vela, snapped up by Arsenal’s coach Arsene Wenger back in 2005, right after Vela was a key player on the Mexican team that had just won its first U-17 World Cup. After a loan period in Spain, Vela finally arrived in London in 2008 ... and has barely been heard of since.
After a handful of first team games, Wenger renewed Vela’s contract, lavished praise on him -- and then loaned him to lowly West Bromwich Albion. During the same period, Tottenham had taken -- on loan from Barcelona -- Vela’s U-17 teammate Giovanni Dos Santos. Dos Santos suffered the same fate as Vela -- a handful of first-team games before he was shipped out, on loan again.
A poor outlook, then, for Mexicans in England. But Chicharito changed all that overnight. His immediate goalscoring success with ManU is an astonishing story. As is the way that he quickly became a favorite with the ManU fans. At once, Chicharito -- by scoring his goals and by the strength of his outgoing personality -- had reversed the negative (and undeserved) image of Mexicans.
Something like this had happened once before, just once, when Hugo Sanchez had taken the Spanish Liga by storm with his goalscoring with Atletico Madrid and then Real Madrid from 1981 to 1992. But Sanchez proved to be a one-off, and Europe showed no further interest in Mexican soccer.
Things were slow to change. The performances of the Mexican national team, erratic as they have been, have surely helped. The Argentina vs. Mexico game was hailed as the best of the 2006 World Cup, and only a miracle-goal from Maxi Rodriguez took the Argentines to victory. In 2010, when an appalling refereeing blunder helped eliminate Mexico, not many doubted that a very good team had been unfairly ousted.
Mexican players were now signing for clubs in Spain and the Netherlands, Germany and England and Scotland. The team that won this year’s Gold Cup included nine players with foreign cubs. But that victory, and Sunday’s U-17 World Cup triumph, impressive as they were, are only a part of this story of the flowering of Mexican soccer.
It is not simply -- or even most importantly -- that Mexico now has a couple more cups for its trophy room. What distinguishes these victories, what gives them a special luster, is the quality of the soccer played in achieving them.
The Gold Cup victory showed a young Mexican team determined to play a quick-passing attacking game. Well, OK -- but playing against the likes of Cuba and El Salvador (both beaten 5–0) did not seem like too acid a test. But the best was to come -- in the final, against the USA, its toughest rival, Mexico’s rapid, fluid game proved irresistible, a pleasure to watch; it was capped by a goal of rare brilliance and subtle artistry from Dos Santos.
This insistence on playing skillful attacking soccer was continued by the under-17 boys. It started unconvincingly with a 3-1 win over North Korea, for the Mexicans were able to assert their authority only after the Koreans were down to 10 men. Against Congo, Mexico had to show that it could keep playing its style in the face of the intimidation that a physically bigger team inevitably poses. There was also little doubt that the Congolese were speedier, too.
The beauty of the Mexican win, 2-1, was that the boys had used superior ball control and possession, and intelligent, quick passing to overcome the physical advantages of their opponents. The third opponent, the European champion Netherlands loomed as the toughest of all, for this team had brutally thrashed Germany, 5-2, in the European Championship final.
The final score, 3-2 to Mexico, again reflected the Mexicans’ unwavering devotion to their style. The Mexicans had romped to a 2-0 lead, had then seen the Dutch tie it up at 2-2, but had fought back for a 94th minute winner. Even so, the win was less convincing that it ought to have been because of the feeling that the Dutch, who had collected only one point from their two previous games, were a dispirited team.
The big test, then came in the quarterfinal against France. A game that was to prove that the stronger the opponents, the more faith the Mexicans drew from their game and the more energy they put into it. And the more impressive it became. The French were dispatched 2-1, beaten by two splendid goals. Then came the classic semifinal against Germany.
The Germans -- and this German team in particular -- must present the ultimate challenge in a youth game. Full of skill, imposingly athletic and strong, disciplined ... and a team that was scoring at a rate of over three goals a game.
A huge challenge for the Mexican boys and their game, but one that they met brilliantly on the soccer front, while showing that their unconquerable spirit could match that of the Germans, as they came back from 2-1 down to win with two terrific goals in the final 15 minutes.
Something else was needed in the final against Uruguay -- something that boys are not noted for: patience. Uruguay clogged midfield, making it very difficult for Mexico to pursue its tight-passing game. But the temptation to bypass midfield, to simply belt the ball long, was never resorted to, and a difficult game was won with the stylish soccer that had taken Mexico to the final.
Has the time come, then, when we can now knowingly talk of “Mexican soccer” as a recognized style of play, both admirable and formidable? If that is the case, what does it mean for the USA, a country still very much in search of a style. I’ll take a look at that question next time.