Mexico appeared ready to make a leap to the next level after last summer's gold medal, but things haven't exactly gone as planned for El Tri.It was one year ago today that Mexicans poured out onto the streets to celebrate a famous victory over Brazil in Wembley Stadium, clinching the gold medal in men’s football at the London Olympics.
Arguably, it was Mexican soccer’s greatest day and was supposed to represent the dawn of a new era for the country’s number one sport.
The talented youngsters - who outplayed Brazil’s stars largely due to overall team cohesion and worth ethic - showed a new, focused mentality and were driven to win. Gone were the old inferiority complexes.
The question was more when than if the talented youngsters would graduate permanently to the full national team and use the experience and chemistry to crescendo into Brazil 2014 full of confidence. The odds that Mexico could reach that longed-for “fifth game” or quarterfinal of a World Cup suddenly seemed much better.
Forget CONCACAF, Mexico’s realistic aim was to join that band of dark horses to win in Brazil, along with the likes of Belgium and Colombia.
That was the plan.
But as the national team players arrive one by one at the Mexican federation’s training complex on Sunday evening ahead of Wednesday’s friendly in New Jersey against Ivory Coast, El Tri’s reality is very different.
The Confederations Cup showed Mexico is still below that top bracket of teams, with El Tri struggling to find fluency against Italy and Brazil. That almost psychic understanding the Olympic team had was nowhere to be seen.
Then came the Gold Cup, which highlighted perfectly that the depth of the player pool isn’t what it necessarily should be, with very few players standing out and making a true claim to be ready for full national team games.
Finally, World Cup qualifying has gone particularly poorly, with El Tri scoring only three goals in its six games so far in 2013, and drawing 0-0 at home against each of Jamaica, Costa Rica and the United States.
The U.S. national team has even moved above Mexico in the FIFA rankings, something that was unimaginable one year ago.
It would be easy to lay all the blame at the door of coach Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre, but while his conservative lineups, strange decisions and failure to get his team ticking are his responsibility, the Olympic players must take their share of the blame, too.
Quite simply, some have not just remained stagnant in comparison to last year, but have actually gone backwards.
Chivas duo Jorge Enriquez and Marco Fabian looked ready for regular spots in El Tri, but have done little since for either club or country.
Javier Aquino hasn’t capitalized on what was a great Olympic tournament for the rapid winger, although he is getting settled with Villarreal in Spain.
Tigres’ Israel Jimenez has fallen off the map at right back, Diego Reyes and Hiram Mier haven’t got past Francisco “Maza” Rodriguez and Hector Moreno at center back, Hector Herrera has looked lost in a Mexico shirt and Oribe Peralta has been hampered by injuries.
Perhaps the only player you could say has developed in the way that was predicted is Raul Jimenez, who is legitimately challenging for a forward spot and is close to making the position playing off Javier Hernandez his own.
The lack of development elsewhere has made the issue of Carlos Vela all the more desperate, as well as raise the topic of naturalized players like Christian Gimenez and Lucas Lobos. It’s difficult to believe that Gimenez and Damian Alvarez would be in the squad for Wednesday’s game if the Olympic group had advanced as hoped.
Some pundits point out Mexico has been here before, that CONCACAF is a lot easier to dominate on paper than in reality, and that El Tri will advance to Brazil.
That may all be true, but it fails to take into account the impact that sunny day at Wembley had for Mexico, the way it raised expectations and pointed to a brighter future on the field.
It’s in that context that Mexican football has since been judged and will continue to be judged and puts into sharper contrast the failures of the last 12 months.