GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Among all the usual “Cielito Lindo,” “Me-hi-co, Me-hi-co” and other chants that accompany important victories by El Tri, after which Mexicans pour out of their houses and offices and onto the streets to celebrate, there was a new one here this time around.
“Pi-o-jo, Pi-o-jo,” was the cry from the 5,000-strong crowd gathered at the Guadalajara's La Minerva roundabout, following Mexico’s 3-1 victory over Croatia on Monday.
It was in tribute to Mexico coach Miguel “The Louse” Herrera, who has not just managed to become an extremely popular figure in his home country, but is also garnering fame all over the world, both for the way he has turned El Tri around, and his maniacal celebrations.
On the face of it, he may cut a comical figure, with memes in Mexico of him celebrating Club America’s title and now more recent ones circulating globally with him rolling around the floor with Paul Aguilar, hugging Guillermo Ochoa, slapping Oribe Peralta’s behind and screaming at officials using the most colorful Mexican slang imaginable.
Aside from that, he deals with press requests for interviews via WhatsApp and was happy to let one Mexican TV station into his house to do a fly-on-the-wall documentary ahead of Brazil 2014. He will confront any journalist with whom he has a problem and talk to them directly to resolve it.
As for his treatment of the players, there have been no draconian rules implemented for Mexico in Brazil. They are simply treated as professionals in the biggest tournament of their lives and expected to behave with those two things in mind. That doesn’t mean they can’t have fun.
In sum, there’s an old-school feel to his management style.
Herrera has talked in interviews of the difficulties of growing up as a small, different-looking kid with his father completely absent from his life. He has said he learned to stick up for himself at an early age in his neighborhood, attributing those factors to help explain why his personality is so fiery even now.
And it’s a breath of fresh air to see that unharnessed emotion and sheer joy that his team brings him. This is a tense tournament with much at stake for many teams, so why shouldn’t he enjoy the successes?
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Herrera’s behavior strikes a chord with Mexico fans, who were naturally down during qualifying, but have been given a team by Herrera that is spirited, fights to the death and, most importantly of all, gets results.
The match against Croatia was a real test for him as a manager. Remember, he’s only ever coached in Mexico and has very limited experience outside its borders. This isn’t the bilingual, well-traveled and handsomely paid Euro-American World Cup winner Jurgen Klinsmann of the USA. Herrera is a manager who never went to a World Cup as a player and until a little over a year ago, had no major trophy to his name in 13 years as a head coach.
Monday was the biggest game of his career. The pressure was on and the opposition undoubtedly saw an opportunity to take advantage of Herrera’s perceived hotheadedness to provoke a reaction ahead of the clash.
“If anyone’s knees are shaking, they are Mexico’s,” said Croatia coach Niko Kovac ahead of the game, with star player Luka Modric adding that the European side had more quality than El Tri and that would take them through.
Herrera’s response was measured, but still firm.
“We can say 20,000 things here, but you have to demonstrate them on the pitch,” he retorted.
And Mexico did.
El Tri and its coach took 10 minutes to work out how Croatia was playing, with attacking midfielder Sammir dropped for defender Sime Vrsaljko and its tactics not exactly as Herrera probably expected. Miguel Layun stayed deeper than usual on the left, Giovani dos Santos dropped into the hole and Rafa Marquez stepped up into midfield when required to alter the deficit in numbers there.
Herrera clearly told his team to be slightly more wary in the first 30 minutes, weighing up and wearing down the opposition and biding their time to strike. The humid climate didn’t help the European side. Modric was overshadowed by Hector Herrera and Mario Mandzukic was swamped by El Tri’s center backs.
Herrera got the tactics spot on as Mexico started to dominate the second half, and his substitutions weren’t bad either.
Was it a coincidence that Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez played such a vital role when he entered the field in the 62nd minute?
There is always some element of chance with these things, but the Guadalajara native was instrumental in the second goal, scored the third and caused mayhem for Croatia’s tired defenders.
“Piojo” is the man of the moment and will undoubtedly lap it up. He’ll celebrate – although he doesn’t touch alcohol – and then start planning for the Netherlands, led by Dutchman Louis van Gaal, who isn’t short of one or two European trophies and a mighty ego.
Herrera may have been patronized and slightly demeaned up to now, but it’d be foolish for Van Gaal to do the same ahead of next Sunday’s clash in Fortaleza.