The last time Hugo Sanchez graced the pitch in front of a pro-Mexican crowd, he was booed unceremoniously. The setting was Carson, and the stakes were a spot in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Subpar performances against Canada and Guatemala put Mexico's U-23 squad against the wall, and a five goal margin of victory against Haiti was required in order to push past the group stage.
A near-comical barrage of misses tainted El Tri's 5-1 win over the Caribbean nation that night, and left Mexico out of the summer games. The failure to qualify for the Olympics, coupled with the loss to the United States in the 2007 Gold Cup final, put Sanchez's neck to the guillotine.
Still, an emergency meeting was held to determine Hugo's future at the national team boss. While El Tri traveled to London to face Ghana, executives decided to cut Sanchez loose and eventually hire Sven-Goran Eriksson in another failed venture en route to the 2010 World Cup. Rumors floated around the former Real Madrid striker's departure, with one of the strongest versions stating that he had lost the position due largely to the ire of Televisa of TV Azteca, who lost millions of dollars in television money thanks to the U-23's failure to qualify for Beijing.
Hugo, visibly shocked, still did not hide the fact that he could not fulfill the expectations set upon signing his contract. "Undoubtedly, we failed," said Sanchez after failing to advance in Carson. "I don't like to use that word, but it's best to say it, because we had planned to be at the Olympic Games, and the fact that we're not there means we can't make history."
Initially, a stint in La Liga's Almeria in 2009 seemed to re-vindicate Hugo. While Eriksson had come under fire for a slow start in the World Cup qualifiers -one that would eventually get him fired- Sanchez steered the Spanish club to safety after Unai Emery had left them close to relegation. Later that year though, Mexico celebrated safe passage under Javier Aguirre, while Hugo was jobless again, unable to continue the good form with Almeria after various key players left in the off-season.
Almost three years later, Hugo will attempt to cast his demons out by returning to Mexico. Whereas his playing career had him shine the brightest in Spain, as a manager, it would seem that Sanchez the manager is best suited for the newly-branded Liga MX. His 2004 back-to-back titles with UNAM Pumas are still the only ones in the short tournament era in Mexico since it was instituted in 1996. During that same sparkling Pumas run, he had even exited the touchline at the Santiago Bernabeu as the winning manager after beating Real Madrid and winning the Merengues' yearly friendly cup tournament.
Eight years after the bicampeonato, Sanchez has made strange alliances to cement his comeback. Pachuca owner Jesus Martinez once blasted the Pentapichichi's managing tactics, Sanchez replied by implying that Pachuca bribed referees in order to get favorable calls in crucial matches.
And yet, they seem to be a match made in heaven. Here's Hugo Sanchez, who at 54 years of age and after a decade of coaching is no closer to his dream job at Real Madrid and was, in fact, in danger of permanently fading into irrelevance as a viable option for any team at manager.
Over there is Pachuca, who have excelled in a small market, surpassing expecations time and time thanks to their ambitious owner and brilliant general manager. And yet, their success has been more of a problem than a point of pride for the Mexican league.
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Their domination of the last decade -which included a Copa Sudamericana championship, the only South American cup tournament ever won by a Mexican club- meant that bigger teams like Chivas, América and Cruz Azul were constantly out of contention, pulling their massive fanbases away from the ever-crucial playoff games and dropping TV ratings.
Efforts at major relevance by Martinez and Pachuca outside the pitch have ranged from ineffective to downright laughable. A cable TV show devoted to the team is largely ignored, and a controversial ad campaign proclaiming the Tuzos as "Mexico's team" prompted backlash for a team that at one point fielded six foreign-born players (as opposed to just five Mexicans) during the fabled 2006 Sudamericana final against Chile's Colo-Colo.
Hugo and Pachuca's marriage, like any other, will have that abrupt end to the honeymoon period. This one can be seen miles away. The signings of Nery Castillo (another soul looking for redemption), Paulo da Silva, Raul Tamudo, Alberto Medina and Nestor Calderon as well as the evolution of young guns Hector Herrera, Marco Bueno and Julio Gomez among others have raised expectations enormously for Hugo's squad, to the point that some have started penciling them in as title favorites.
To get there, Sanchez will have to get pass tests that include old rival and new Atlante manager Ricardo La Volpe in the very first league match, a game certain to pique the interest of the casual fan. Hugo's old team, Pumas, has also armed itself to the teeth with signings in an effort to get back on top. The reinging champs, Santos Laguna, retained all of their stars and added national team midfielder Gerardo Lugo to the mix.
A poor run of play at any point during the season will raise eyebrows and fire up the pressure cooker. This is no small investment being made by Martinez, and no small risk being taken by Sanchez. With Pachuca in the running for four different championships in 2012-13 thanks to the Copa México returning, Hugo's men will surely be expected to win silverware at some point.
In the event that Pachuca does indeed win a trophy, Sanchez will receive his medal and trophy from Decio de Maria, Liga MX president and former FMF Secretary General, the man charged with telling the media that Hugol had been relieved from his duties as Mexican national team manager just four years before.
Martinez will surely look on close by, boasting that Mexico's team has once again been Mexico's best, with the country's most famous footballer at the helm of their newest success. And Hugo, redeemed to a point, will surely go back to the phone, waiting for it to ring and for Madrid to be on the other end.
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