World Cup

Juan Carlos Osorio's Mexico legacy goes beyond fifth-game failure

7/5/18
World Cup
Mexico
Brazil v Mexico
Though El Tri failed to progress to the quinto partido in Russia, the manager stands to leave the country having advanced the game there
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Mexicans love telling a story.

From the telenovelas that make up one of the country's chief cultural exports to the corridos heard throughout the north, it's all about the drama. The Mexico national team sometimes is called the biggest telenovela of them all, and this season once again delivered. There were the pre-tournament concerns after unimpressive friendly games, the players partying with women before setting off for the tournament, then the highs (beating Germany) and lows (losing the last two games) of the World Cup.

The audience is tired of the story ending like this, in the round of 16 like the six World Cup runs before it did as well. Still, these bits of drama that dominate the airwaves and fill the pages of the newspapers, confining the tactical analysis that would be front page in Italy or Argentina to blogs and social media.

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With this love of narrative, maybe it shouldn't have come as a surprise that when Juan Carlos Osorio turned up and wanted to talk about soccer, not tell stories, he wasn't embraced by the Mexican fans. However, his story has a dramatic arc as well. After years of explaining his ideas, the manager has won over a large swath of the Mexican fan base - many of whom now hope there's a future for Osorio in Mexico.

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Yet after several years of frustration with the press and the fans in the country and with offers likely to arrive from his native Colombia, from his former home the United States and perhaps even from teams in Europe, the final chapter is being written. It's not setting up for a sequel.

When we look back on Osorio's story, we find an up-and-down journey. His two-and-a-half year tenure will leave Mexico changed, his legacy going far beyond simply being another manager who failed to make the fifth game.

The results will be part of how the 56-year-old is remembered. No one has forgotten, nor will anyone forget, about a 7-0 defeat to Chile in the first knockout round match of his Mexico career. The coach survived the Copa America Centenario defeat, with the Mexican federation making an unusual exception and not giving a manager the boot after his first big loss in a major tournament. Unfortunately for him, he was never able to secure the trophies he sought, falling short in the Confederations Cup, Gold Cup and World Cup.

People also may remember the qualification campaign, during which Mexico earned its place in Russia without issue and on the way secured historic wins in Columbus, Vancouver and San Pedro Sula. Osorio’s men nearly finished out the Hex with an unbeaten record. They'll definitely recall the feelings after June 17's 1-0 victory over Germany, a game in which Osorio got his tactics so right that the same fan base that had asked for his job just days prior to the World Cup in the Estadio Azteca was singing his name the rest of the tournament.

When we talk about legacy, we're talking about things that go past results. Osorio's darkest imprint on the national team may be the change in mentality he has asked players to take on. They've done so with aplomb. To a man, the players continued to back Osorio in the face of outside criticism and bought into his unorthodox methods. Forward Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez extended the principles of thinking about bigger things to the whole country.

"We lost, we’re sad. Disillusioned, obviously, with a dream that was cut short, of course. But Mexico continues on, Mexico is still on its feet," the forward said after the 2-0 loss to Brazil. "We have a lot of challenges in terms of football, we also have cultural challenges, but we have to keep changing the mentality. People keep talking about results, but it takes a deeper mentality than a lot of people want to have."

Another thing that Osorio leaves Mexican soccer with is an encouragement for young players to go abroad. His words may not always have been heeded: Carlos Vela came back to North America when he could've stayed in La Liga. Even Jesus Gallardo's move from Pumas to Monterrey looks like it may have been too easy a move for a player who could've attracted interest from European clubs.

Those players are (for the most part) already developed, though. It's great to see Nestor Araujo and Oswaldo Alanis moving to Spain at this stage in their careers after Osorio helped launched them to wider renown. But Mexico needs more young players like Diego Lainez and Cesar Montes to challenge themselves in Europe.

Osorio did everything he could to reward the players who took those risks. Omar Govea and Uriel Antuna were included in the squad for Mexico's November friendly matches in Europe and Govea earning subsequent call-ups. After El Tri's World Cup elimination, he once again used a news conference to call for players to fight for moves across the Atlantic.

"We must continue to try and have more players in Europe," he said. "As Mexican soccer exports more players, the national team will eventually get a jump in quality." 

These are the types of things that may take Mexican football to the next level. The fact that Mexico runs into a roadblock at the same stage every time is not just coincidence. There are things about the system that needs changing. Osorio did what he could to fight against those things, but ultimately fell short of his goal.

Despite the same ending as other managers' stories have come to, though, Osorio's tenure may be remembered as a turning point, a place in the canon where the style shifted. If Mexico makes the right hires and builds on the lessons learned in this time, he can be the Gogol to his successor's Dosteovsky, the Paz paving the way for Villoro. He may not be remembered as an all-time great, but Osorio has helped Mexican soccer progress in the right direction. That will be his lasting legacy.