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.
Yes, the Mexican team deserves much credit for their strong display; but Paul, really, you seem to be doing it up a bit--severely--in order to diminish the sorry state of the American game....thanks, we need it. Our game ain't good; it's fricking hard to watch, men's and women's both!
Correction: Mexican teamS.
However, our Women's team display's a spirit and determination, lacking in the banal BB's group... Yes, Brasil displayed better ball skills( acourse) but the US never gave up and fought so hard, hence the Mainstream media getting caught up in them....
Paul, I only wish we had teams that could play like Mexico does. I refuse to believe we cannot find 23 boys or girls from all accross this entire country that can't.
Paul - as you ponder the ways you'll compare and contrast the Mexican and US philosophies, I hope you will broach the subject of independent clubs, promotion and relegation v our Wal-Mart style of soccer business. Perhaps, like Wal Mart, the search for profit is not synonymous with a search for style and quality. Worry about MLS owner reaction if you must, but don't confuse a few dozen screaming single entity ninnies with a cultural blockade to do this sport the right way.
Great article, and completely agree. Will be interested to read your thoughts on the US style, or potential style. I have my opinions and thoughts...our senior team rarely looks anything like our youth teams nor our (for example today's article) best U15/16 or U17/18 developmental players.
The sad thing is that I know of some great players that have gone to the USSF U17 back in 2007-2008, and this boys were really good, but small for them, they were around 5'8,5'7 I actually thought that one of the kids was really going to make it but he didnt because according the USSF he was not the type of player that can play the US style, what ever that style is they need to change it..
Quality and player hunger are key elements for success. Unfortunately, these elements are missing on our men's squad.
My bad, im pretty sure they were shorter back then, now the players are 5'7 - 5'8 or so.. My son is a u14 players and he is only 5'2, one time he went to tryout for a team, and when the coach saw him he came to me and told me in my face that my son was to short to play and his team, but later on the day, he came to me and told me that he wanted him... a lot of coaches start judging before they even see the player in action..
Phil: If you saw any of the US team's performances in the U17 WC, you'd know Paul is right to be discouraged. They look completely out of ideas against an equally abysmal New Zealand team (except for the disgraceful last 30 mins where neither side even tried to play). And they looked completely outclassed (a woefully inadequate description) against a brilliant Germany side. The US doesn't have a style of play. It only has a "mentality" (which changes from game to game... sometimes starting strong and collapsing, sometimes finishing strong after a woeful start but rarely 90 mins at the top of their game).
Excellent points, Paul, especially this one: "Something else was needed in the final against Uruguay -- something that boys are not noted for: patience." Those Mexican kids gave an absolutely magnificent performance. A few times during the game I thought, man, how did these kids mature so well? But please don't get me wrong: Uruguay played superbly, too. They stuck to their natural style of play, running and fighting hard, hoping for an Aztecazo until the last few minutes. But Mexico was more-- they deserve the trophy.
I have been coaching for 36 years in the US. There as always been good players in the US. My first team was so good that we beat teams 18-0, 15-0, 14-0. Finally the other teams went and complained to PAL that I was cheating because I was using older Mexicans to win the game. So I had to bring each players birthcertifate to the game to proof that my players were the right person on the pass that PAL made for me. A few years ago there were several 1000 people watching my team dismantel Manchester United's U12 team at the Dallas Cup. During the entire game people were calling my players dirty MEXICANS and telling us go back to your country. Every player on that team was born in the USA. My team won 3-1. there names were Jose, Jaime, Julio, Marco and Eduardo. I never said a thing till today. I am sick entire of waiting for change. I have been changing soccer in my country for 36 years. It is time for a soccer REVOLUTIOON. Wait let's better say this. We need another American REVOLUTION. Racism in America is bigger than it has ever been and it will continue to grow. Because people in the USA have no idea who they are. Before the US can create a style, a new infrastructure, and a new vision. We first must discover who we are. I will tell you who we are but everyone in the US needs to discover this on their own. I am a USONIAN-- A person of the United States of America. My colors are red,white, and blue. Hopefully in a few days our idiotic, moronic and self righteous congress and senate will step up and finally discover who they are before they continue to take our beautiful country down the toilet. Isn't interesting that our soccer is a reflect of what is happening to us in USA at this moment in time. I call for a SOCCER REVOLUTION!!!!!
I am sorry if I left a few words out in my last comment. I was just a little pissed off. But I think you got the jest of it. USA ONE DAY!!!
Great article on great Mexican teams. Unfortunately it just serves to highlight how awful USSoccer is. And here we are -- each of us --preaching to the choir with PG as the high priest and what good does it do? Nada! Why? Because the majority of US Soccer fans care nothing for the "beautiful game". It's only a term to be used in the media when advertising the World Cup. Nothing more. Just read other blogs and their comments -- nothing but formations and juvenile tactics -- never a word about beautiful passes, brilliant turns on the ball, mesmerizing dribbles, and awesome traps. How can a skillful soccer culture develop in such a wasteland of soccer appreciation? It looks like, just like my son, I will have to find the local Hispanic games and let my grandchildren learn to appreciate the game from them.
Mexico didn't get here overnight to play like this they have been working on it for long time and they will get better. Also they have a soccer "culture" to the contrary to US which don't have it.They also have a soccer structure a system I.e.: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and way down to amateur throughout the country. Get it? What is soccer culture or environment anyway? well in my small hometown in SA we have several clubs, I belong to one of them so my parents, brothers, and friends. The club is only 105 years old we love our club dearly we all played for it, we all gathered around the club for the annual dinner party, or to celebrate our sister wedding at the club's saloon, or just to hang around to play pick up games with our friends and we all go to the tryouts for the youth teams. Do you have that here in America? I don't think so. We play this game because we love it, the rest comes naturally and I will still will be playing until into my 100's.