Carlos Vela was one of the best players on the field for Mexico in El Tri's historic 1-0 victory over Germany. Yes, Arsenal fans. That Carlos Vela.
You can forgive those who only pay attention to Arsenal for asking, though. Vela never was able to break through in the Premier League. A YouTube user has uploaded a video of "all 11" of Vela's Arsenal goals. Never mind that he was there for seven years, here are all 11 goals!
Of course, he wasn't really there for seven years. Vela never had any consistency at Arsenal, getting loaned out to three different clubs before the fourth, Real Sociedad, became his long-term home. He scored more than 11 goals in each of his first three seasons in San Sebastian and never looked back at Arsenal. Now he's thriving both with MLS expansion club Los Angeles Football Club and with the national team.
Why didn't it work out with the Gunners? You can put the blame on both parties. Vela was just one of a number of promising players Arsenal signed then lost interest in and loaned out. Before the days of club partnerships like the pipeline from Chelsea to Vitesse or the City Football Group network, players bounced from one team to the next. It's no wonder guys like Vela, Joel Campbell, Jeremie Aliadiere and Nicklas Bendtner never reached the heights they were projected to when they signed in London.
On the other, Vela always has needed a special touch to succeed. He'll readily admit now that he lacked the maturity needed to make it as a top-level footballer when he moved across the Atlantic after dazzling in Peru as the top scorer of the 2005 FIFA U-17 World Championship. Vela never has seemed to love football.
In fact, his move this year to MLS has given him the chance to enjoy basketball, a sport he does love, up close and personal. He's also enjoyed his family, with his first child being born just before the move and now being raised in Los Angeles, much closer to loved ones in Mexico.
"At the end of the day, when you’re young you think you’re invincible. A lot of times I made the wrong choices and you learn from this, what is good, what’s bad," he said in a May news conference. "Having a family has helped a lot with my partner, my son. It helped me focus on soccer. That’s an important thing that they’re supporting me and with me every day."
Vela now seems to accept that not only is football something he's very good at, it's a job that allows him and his family to live well. While that doesn't jibe with the romantic notions we have about players who do things for the love of the game or fight for the shirt, it's also the reality for thousands of other players who haven't been as open about that as Vela has.
"I'd 1,000 times rather go see an NBA game than a football match," he told reporters at the NBA All-Star game this year. "But that aside, I can do the job I like, which is playing football and also enjoy my hobby."
It wasn't only Arsenal fans who saw Vela drop off the radar. The win over Germany was Vela's reintroduction on the world stage. Vela turned down repeated overtures from the Mexican federation to dress in the green of El Tri once again. His dispute started when he and another player were suspended for a post-match party at a national team game. While he eventually returned his dispute stretched out longer and Vela stayed out for both the 2012 Olympics, which Mexico won, and the 2014 World Cup.
While he still says he's not the most patriotic guy, Vela is back in the El Tri setup. The relationship benefiting both parties. He's been a consistent presence during the Juan Carlos Osorio era, with the manager enjoying his ability to play on the right as an inverted winger but also to drop deeper like he did against Germany, playing behind the forward and facilitating attacks. Vela even has played deeper in the midfield, though that seems unlikely at the World Cup.
He did seem frustrated leaving the field just shy of the hour mark, but Osorio said after the match it was simply part of the plan he'd started drawing up after Mexico was drawn into the same group as Germany.
"Carlos Vela's job today was to find himself in zone 14, the space in front of the defenders and behind (Sami) Khedira and (Toni) Kroos, to break up this relationship there is between the two central midfielders," Osorio said after the contest. "I think we did it. If you remember, Carlos was the one who made the last pass for several of the shots we had, for many of the attacks getting into the final third. The idea was for him to give us everything for 60 minutes. He put in a really big effort. On dead balls he had to defend (Mats) Hummels and in open play he had to go after their central defender. The 60 minutes were what we'd budgeted.
"He was one of our best players, and it hurt me to take him out, but that's the plan we had."
The plan will have plenty more of Vela in the future. There is life after Arsenal. Vela is making the most of his.