¡Ahora, lee Goal.com USA en Español!
The questions were peppered in by journalists, as if fired in via verbal machine guns.
"Do you think Mexico can win the World Cup?"
"What are you going to do about the United States?"
"Are you promising to win the Gold Cup?"
It was Jan. 13, 2011. The setting was the media room at the Centro de Alto Rendimiento in Mexico City. Up against the wall, donning the standard albeit figurative blindfold and a cigarette, was new Mexico manager Jose Manuel de la Torre.
Following two strong stints at Guadalajara and Toluca, two of the biggest winning franchises in Mexican soccer history, De la Torre was no stranger to press scrutiny. Four years in the Mexican Primera had yielded three titles, and an impeccable reputation for effective, balanced football.
The man nicknamed "Chepo" revealed nothing. Dodging the questions artfully like a seasoned politician, De la Torre avoided falling into the pits of unnecessary pressure that his predecessors had seemingly invited. There would be no veiled promise to win the World Cup, like Hugo Sanchez did in 2006. No promise of an Olympic medal like Ricardo La Volpe made in 2003.
"Being here is prompted by the player's conviction," Chepo said sternly. "We're representing 120 million people and that hierarchy of talent has to be something the player is conscious of."
His words were clearly aimed at those who had violated Mexico's code of ethics before his arrival, specifically centering around media scandal that had rocked El Tri the prior September.
In a party well after curfew with booze and allegedly prostitutes, the two men singled out from the unruly shindig were Efrain Juarez and Carlos Vela. Suspended for six months from the national team and made to pay a fine, both men seemed to damage their reputation and future with the team. Eventually, both men made it back before fading away. Juarez's bad run of form pushed him away. Vela's pettiness and perceived petulance keep him out of the mix to this day.
Since Jose Manuel de la Torre's ascension to the El Tri job, Vela has made exactly two appearances with the national team, with none coming in 2012. After a strong club season with Real Sociedad, the stage appeared set for Carlos to return for the U-23, linking up with his old partner Giovani dos Santos. Except he didn't want to.
"He has his reasons," said De la Torre when questioned about the issue last May. "It's valid for him to argue that point, he's watching out for his stability. We don't want anyone here who doesn't want to be here."
That "stability" was a move away from Arsenal, one that Vela dreamed of after accumulating just 29 Premier League appearances in seven years and one that culminated with the player joining Real Sociedad on a permanent basis. Rumors ran rampant that Vela shied away from Olympic duty because he didn't want to risk an injury. Meanwhile, Giovani dos Santos had his own issues with Tottenham, suited up for the U-23's and walked away from London 2012 with a gold medal. He now plays for Mallorca.
Whereas just a year ago a player with such mouthwatering talent such as Carlos Vela would have seemed irreplaceable in the grand scheme of things for Mexico, he's looking all the more expendable each and every day. A bevy of offensive talent is aching for its chance to break in with El Tri, and every time a new national team list is released, less and less voices clamor for the former Gunner.
It now seems that no matter what Vela does in Spain, Chepo will not be pressured into calling him up. As long as players like Dos Santos, Javier Hernandez, Oribe Peralta, Andres Guardado, Aldo de Nigris and yes, even Pablo Barrera continue to put in the type of performances that deliver Mexican victories, Vela runs the very real risk of missing out on Brazil 2014.
If anything, Jose Manuel de la Torre runs a tight ship. He's a proud guy, and he's loyal to his word. It's no coincidence that the first words that came out of his mouth on the day he was presented to the media referenced discipline. The ball is now completely in Vela's court if he ever wants to play for El Tri as long as Chepo's in charge.
Vela needs to communicate somehow and make his feelings known. Heck, a public apology wouldn't be out of the question, especially with how strong the reaction to his declination to join the Olympic team was last Spring.
At just 23 years of age, it seems pretty unfathomable that his international days could be over, or at least put on a long pause. Once seen as a vital lynchpin for any sort of Mexican success at the big stage, he could very well a footnote in El Tri's golden generation, a perceived locker room cancer that was aptly replaced by a hardline manager who really only wanted an apology and a commitment.
If for no other reason, he should consider this: Brazil 2014 will be one hell of a party.