At this moment, there is something approaching astonishment in the soccer world: Mexico has beaten Germany! Unfancied Mexico has beaten the world champions!! Has, actually, outplayed the Germans!!!
It comes, apparently, as a surprise. This is a major upset, we’re being told. Is that so? Not around here it isn’t. For decades now the Mexicans have been playing their soccer -- skillful, speedy, artistic, really a pleasure to watch -- winning a top game now and then, but totally failing to make any impression in the corridors of soccer power. I mean, particularly, in Europe.
I first realized that something was amiss in soccer’s treatment of Mexico in 1988. Mexico had been found guilty of using over-age players in the qualifying rounds for the under-20 World Cup. We waited for FIFA to announce its punishment. When it came, it was massive, and out of all proportion. A ban from the U-20 World Cup and a fine was expected. But FIFA banned Mexico from all international soccer activity for two years. Which meant that Mexico could not play in the 1988 Olympic Games and the 1990 World Cup.
No nation had ever been so harshly treated. The first sign (it took me some years to recognize it as such) that Mexico did have a place in world soccer: as a fall guy.
Had this been a small country like Honduras or El Salvador, such a ban would barely have been noticed. Who would have cared? Had this been a major power -- Brazil or Germany say -- no such FIFA World Cup ban would have been declared.
But Mexico, a large country but not a soccer power, was the ideal victim for FIFA to show the world it meant business. Mexico had played in nine of the 13 World Cups - indeed, had just staged the 1986 tournament. Putting the Mexicans in their place made FIFA look good without upsetting any of the major powers.
The underlying problem for Mexico was that its team had never accomplished anything exceptional. In World Cup play, it usually failed to get out of the first round. Mexican soccer was not taken seriously.
That attitude should have disappeared years ago, as Mexico has shown up well in FIFA youth tournaments (a third-place in the 2011 U-20 World Cup, winners of the U-17 World Cup in 2005 and 2011) and in the Olympics (winners in 2012). But Mexico’s role as the fall guy surfaced again last year, when its national team coach, Juan Carlos Osorio, was found guilty of using profane language in a dispute with referees. Not exactly an unheard-of offense. But Osorio’s punishment -- a six-game suspension -- was unusually heavy.
Even today, in the immediate aftermath of the win over Germany, one wonders whether the merits of Mexican soccer are being truly appreciated. I watched a BBC panel of experts (ex-players, all European) analyze the game. They duly, and briefly, praised Mexico, but managed to diminish the Mexican achievement by spending most of their time telling us how awful the Germans had been. Plus, plenty of thoughts about what Germany now had to do to set things right.
What was totally lacking from the panel discussion was any analysis of Mexico’s place in the tournament -- how far could it go? Could it even win the World Cup? Nothing. Yet again, the quality of Mexican soccer was evidently not worth consideration. It seemed that the idea of Mexico as a believable soccer power just did not occur to anyone.
Yet, it should do. Mexican soccer history is not that different from Spain’s. For Spain there were decades of disappointment -- and it was during the World Cup that things always seemed to go against Spain: the flagrant red-card foul by Mauro Tassotti that was not seen by the referee in 1994 as Italy knocked Spain out of the tournament, and then, in 2002, Spain suffered catastrophically bad refereeing that saw them defeated by South Korea -- the host team.
But Spain persisted, never losing faith in their skillful soccer. In 2010 it got its just reward with a world championship.
Mexico, too, knows the slings and arrows of World Cup anguish -- repeated bad luck with the draw, awful referee decisions (has there ever been a worse offside decision than the 2010 one that allowed Argentina’s Carlos Tevez, clearly a yard or more offside, to score a crucial goal?), even the feeling that fate was against them, as in its second round game against Argentina in 2006, a wonderful game, full of great soccer, that went to overtime tied at 1-1, when Maxi Rodriguez decided it for Argentina with a “wonder” goal, something unreal, surely from the world of the soccer gods.
But Mexico, like Spain, has never faltered in its belief that, stylistically, it is doing the right thing by its devotion to skillful soccer -- to the Latin American style.
This time, Mexico’s traditionally bad World Cup news started immediately -- drawn into the same group as perennial power Germany. That would be Mexico’s opening game -- against the reigning world champions.
That huge challenge has been swept aside. Not with a lucky win -- the Mexicans do not seem to have luck on their side at World Cup time -- but with good, occasionally brilliant, soccer. If the Europeans are still not impressed, I think they are making a big mistake.
But not nearly so big as the mistake being made right here at home in the USA. Actually, it’s the same mistake: under-estimating, almost ignoring, Mexican soccer. But the consequences of such ignorance are far more damaging in the USA than elsewhere.
The USA’s constant refusal to fully engage with Mexico and with Latino soccer in general is an ugly blot on the American sport. There is absolutely no soccer reason that can be adduced to explain it. Quite the opposite. The facts, to say nothing of plain common sense, say -- shout, really -- that Mexico has a lot to teach us in soccer.
So why is U.S. Soccer bringing in Dutch and Belgian experts (Irish too, if the latest reports are valid -- more than likely they are)? Why did we have to put up with a German coach who told us our players were not good enough and insisted on bringing in German youngsters? Why is there an almost total absence of Latin coaches among the Federation’s various national team coaches? How is it that promising young American-born Latino players increasingly seek playing opportunities in Mexico, rather than here, in their country of birth?
Does anyone at U.S. Soccer -- or MLS, or the United Soccer Coaches for that matter -- ever give any serious thought to these matters? I don’t think so.
The question of an American playing style is one that has baffled our (mostly) European or pro-European experts for decades. You can be quite sure that no solution will come from U.S. Soccer’s latest Dutch recruit Earnie Stewart, newly appointed as General Manager of the U.S. national teams. Questioned by Soccer America’s Mike Woitalla on this matter of style, Stewart gave us a master class in vapid waffling, making it painfully obvious that he knew nothing about the Hispanic situation here. This piffle ... from the new General Manager?
Embarrassing it certainly was, but it was much worse. It bordered on the scandalous that this vital appointment (for the moment I’m assuming it’s as vital as U.S. Soccer wants us to believe) should be filled with someone so out of touch with a key issue -- no, not a key issue, the key issue -- in the development of U.S. players and of a U.S. playing style.
I remarked, before the recent U.S. Soccer presidential election, that only one of the candidates (Kyle Martino) had even mentioned the Latino challenge. Our new phantom president, Carlos Cordeiro, has not been heard from on the topic. His rare public appearances feature only platitudes before he quickly scoots back to wherever it is that phantoms dwell.
I fear that a part of this aversion to -- maybe even a hostility to -- Mexican soccer comes from the brainless marketing minds that insist we must have a rivalry , better still an enmity ... something those money-minded marketeers can work on to sell more shirts. Nine years ago, we had Alexi Lalas telling us, with evident relish, what he thought of Mexicans: “I hate them, I hate them!” Following that up with “It drives me nuts, I wanna crush ‘em! Crush ‘em!” Lalas was merely treading in the much earlier footsteps of Eric Wynalda. This was Wynalda's volley from 1996: "I have no problem at all with saying I hate them." Nice, eh?
What tripe. But far too many players and fans seem willing to buy into this adolescent drivel. Just look at the pathetic responses to Landon Donovan’s recent suggestion that American fans should, because their own team didn’t make it, support neighboring Mexico at the World Cup. Where does this unpleasant refusal to even acknowledge Mexico come from, one wonders?
Perhaps the sociologists have an answer. I don’t. But I do know that things have reached as close to rock bottom as you would ever want when it is one of the marketing arms of American soccer -- SUM -- that, through a commercial agreement, offers the only sign of any willingness from the American soccer establishment to cooperate with -- maybe learn something from -- our distant neighbor, Mexico.