By Tom Marshall
Mexico head to the Confederations Cup in Brazil this summer with a squad and a sense of belief that marks them out as realistic challengers for the trophy.
Unfortunately for them, their record in global tournaments is likely to prove more than a significant stumbling block.
Mexico are perhaps the most consistent footballing nation at international level, going out at the Round of 16 stage in each World Cup going back to USA ’94.
Getting to that elusive 'fifth game', the World Cup quarter-final, has been a thorn in the side of successive national team coaches, but el Tri just haven't had that extra quality to push them through to the next stage.
At youth level, Mexico have been slowly but surely building foundations. In 2005, they won the Under-17 World Cup in Peru, repeated the feat in 2011 and last summer beat and outplayed a strong Brazil side to take Olympic gold.
But so far, there is no suggestion that the resources pumped into Mexico's youth programmes are showing results on the full international stage.
This year, Mexico have played nine games, drawing eight and winning the other, a 1-0 victory away at Jamaica. In the process, they have scored just six goals.
That Olympic-winning team was supposed to move almost en-masse to Europe, but so far only Javier Aquino (Villarreal) has made the jump and played in a European league – Spain’s second division. The “golden generation” appears to have stalled.
|THE MEXICANS WHO DID STAR IN EUROPE
| HUGO SANCHEZ
|Mexico's greatest ever player scored 54 goals in 111 games for Atletico Madrid before leading Real Madrid to five Liga titles.|
| RAFAEL MARQUEZ
|Marquez enjoyed a stellar European career, first for Monaco and then Barcelona, winning four Liga titles and two Champions Leagues.|
| JAVIER 'CHICHARITO' HERNANDEZ
|The 25-year-old has already won the EPL on two occasions, scoring 33 goals in 77 appearances for Man Utd since joining in 2010.|
| LUIS GARCIA
|Pumas youth graduate Garcia played two seasons between 1992 and 1994 for Atletico Madrid, scoring 28 goals in 58 games.|
| CARLOS SALCIDO
|Salcido moved to PSV after the 2006 World Cup and won two Eredivisie titles. He then played for Fulham before returning to Mexico in 2011.|
A quick look at Mexico’s Confederations Cup squad shows six of the 23-man group currently ply their trade in Europe, but only two can be said to play for clubs in the game's upper echelon: Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez of Manchester United and Valencia's Andres Guardado. In the Confederations Cup, only semi-professional Tahiti have fewer players than Mexico at elite European sides.
The facts highlight an historical and ongoing headache for the Mexico national team: players just aren't testing themselves week-in, week-out at the top level of club football.
The overwhelming reason is that Mexican clubs pay first-team players very well, negating the drive to move to foreign climes for better pay packets, which is common for players from the likes of Argentina or other central American sides.
Guardado told El Pais last September that he could double his wages by moving back to Mexico, stressing that he remains in Europe because he wants to grow as a footballer. Fellow international Carlos Salcido admitted to L’Equipe recently that his current club Tigres matched his Premier League wage, meaning he has suffered no financial repercussions from moving back to home shores from Fulham.
In April, Forbes magazine reported the salaries of some of the Liga MX’s highest-paid players, with Monterrey’s Humberto Suazo topping the list at $3 million. Mexican Olympic gold winner Marco Fabian has long been linked with a move to Europe, but with his annual wage at $1.5m, it would take one of Europe’s bigger clubs to come in to pay both the salary and the transfer fee.
With many Mexican clubs owned by some of the country’s biggest corporations – a company owned by the world’s second-richest man Carlos Slim has shares in three teams– paying players is not a problem for many Liga MX outfits.
Then there is the fact that Mexicans haven’t always been the most successful in Europe.
Cuauhtemoc Blanco is the most iconic player of his generation in Mexico, but apart from the “Cuauhteminha” trick at World Cup '98 and a short stint at Real Valladolid, his career in Europe passed largely under the radar.
In more recent times, Pablo Barrera and Efrain Juarez both left for Europe after the last World Cup and have already been repatriated after disastrous spells for West Ham and Celtic.
Even 24-year-old Giovani dos Santos – long regarded as the golden boy in Mexico after coming through Barcelona’s youth ranks – was a flop at Tottenham and while he has established himself in La Liga this past season, his side Mallorca were ultimately relegated.
Rafael Marquez, Hugo Sanchez and Chicharito are the exceptions, but when you compare them to the hordes of players that have made it in Europe from Argentina and Brazil – not dissimilar to Mexico socio-economically, and with a similar passion for football – it gives a little perspective on Mexico’s situation.
As authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski theorised in “Why England Loses…”, exposure to different footballing cultures helps players become more rounded, mature and developed, in turn assisting the national team.
Perhaps Uruguay is the perfect example. Mexico has three cities with bigger populations than the whole of the South American country, but Uruguay have 18 players in their squad in Europe’s best leagues.
In the Liga MX, factors such as altitude, heat and a somewhat-sheltered footballing culture – far away from both South America and Europe – have produced a very different style of play.
At national team level, el Tri don’t get properly stretched in World Cup qualifying in ways that could improve them. In recent times, the standard set-up of almost all Concacaf teams is to park the bus against Mexico. It's been working, and Mexico have been left with few opportunities to test themselves against different systems and styles of opposition.
The answer is to export a greater number of players to Europe at an earlier age, but while wages and transfer fees in Mexico remain high, there’s unlikely to be that necessary change.