People who watched Mexico at the Olympics or at the last two World Cups may not be at all surprised by El Tri’s performance so far at Brazil 2014. It seems like a logical extension of what has gone before.
After all, Mexico always gets to the World Cup and almost always gets out of the group stage, followed by inevitable heartbreak in the Round of 16.
But anyone who closely followed qualifying and the dismal 2013 can’t help but be taken aback by the huge change in this Mexico side from that horrendous defeat to Honduras back on Sept. 6, 2013 – just nine months ago - to Tuesday’s gutsy performance against Brazil.
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Mexico was so poor in qualifying it deservedly finished four points – over ten matches - behind Honduras and only scraped above Panama for the chance to play the intercontinental playoff.
Mexico sunk to lows that were difficult to fathom. Europe-based players like Andres Guardado, Giovani Dos Santos, Javier Hernandez and Hector Moreno played well below their best for a sustained period of time. They were unrecognizable from the players Mexico fans knew.
They clearly weren’t happy under Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre later on in his reign. Symptoms of that included Guillermo Ochoa preferring not to come into the squad for those key games last September against Honduras and the United States, as well as Carlos Salcido’s comments about players “running around like crazy people.” The real evidence of discontent was visible on the field.
A strict disciplinarian, De la Torre lost the players, who performed gradually worse as 2013 developed, hitting rock bottom in confidence and not responding to the manager.
The players seem much happier now, much more confident and enjoying playing.
Dos Santos and Guardado are the best examples. They have been inspired in the World Cup, yet were symbols of Europe-based players failing the national team in 2013.
Others like Paul Aguilar and Jose Juan “Gallito” Vazquez – who are unproven at world level – have fed off that and played out of their skins this tournament as well.
A lot of praise has to go to Miguel Herrera. He may be the source of some humor with his histrionics on the touchline and those selfies, but he’s been a big factor in the in giving the players more space and freedom to express themselves on and off the field.
He’s trusted them from day one in the job, not casting any doubt at all on their ability to reach the World Cup and make an impact, as El Tri already has against Brazil.
Herrera has come in, put them first and is letting the players have fun in what for many will be the greatest occasion of their sporting lives.
On Wednesday, the subs from Tuesday’s match – including Hernandez - were allowed to play a scrimmage between themselves and Santos locals on the beach near the team hotel and the whole squad pulled off a major PR scoop on Sunday when it joined fans that had gathered outside the hotel to offer support and serenade them.
That kind of think would seem unthinkable under Chepo.
From the photos players are posting on their social network accounts and from the interviews given, it looks like being a Mexico player at the World Cup is a lot of fun.
It’s worth quoting at length what Guardado told the press on Monday to hammer home the point about the change in the atmosphere.
“Last year in the Confederations Cup we arrived (in Brazil) with a lot of doubts, with internal situations that weren’t ideal … it’s been an almost complete turnaround … Confidence has much improved, we didn’t have the necessary confidence.”
On the pitch, Herrera has come in an imposed a style and 5-3-2 system that is better suited to the players. One feature of Mexico so far this World Cup has been center backs stepping up into midfield; another has been the wing backs flying forward. It is aesthetically pleasing and can only function really when all the players are working together. This is a Mexico side that doesn’t have the individual genius of Chile, Portugal or Uruguay. It needed a communal identity and emphasis.
Herrera has also been fair and open in making big decisions. The Europe-based players were left out against New Zealand, but given opportunity to state their cases, which most have done.
The selection of Ochoa – widely reported to be on the brink of not even making El Tri’s squad – has proved inspired and the fact Herrera has left out Hernandez – by far Mexico’s biggest name – from the starting XI has stamped his authority on the team, while keeping the Manchester United player and others on side.
The result is a team that can compete on its day with Brazil and any other side in this World Cup.
The real Mexico is nearer the Brazil performance than qualifying, with plenty of work still to do to reach the standard of the likes of the hosts, Argentina and Germany, but lots of positives that it could one day get there.