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Mexico's World Cup mess: Injuries and Martino criticism leaving El Tri in chaos ahead of Qatar 2022 opener

21:00 GMT+4 21/11/2022
Jimenez Martino Chavez Mexico GFX
Despite huge expectations back home, it feels like El Tri will need to raise their game considerably to even make it out of the group this time

When and if it all goes wrong for Mexico, we know where the blame will fall. And, given what he's gone through while in charge of the national team in recent years, Gerardo 'Tata' Martino may finally find relief in that blame.

As El Tri march towards the World Cup, they do so surrounded by chaos. Their best player, Raul Jimenez, is barely fit to play. One of their top attackers, Jesus 'Tecatito' Corona, is out with an injury of his own. Two of the country's most recognizable players, Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez and Carlos Vela, have been excluded despite strong seasons in MLS. Roster decisions have been dissected and criticized in a fashion that's even deeper than usual in a country that is more obsessed with its national team than most.

And then there's Martino, the manager caught in a loveless marriage with the team he coaches. There's little respect or admiration for Martino left in Mexico these days. He is, at best, tolerated and, at worst, openly reviled by those that follow Mexican soccer. And, at times, that has seemingly gotten to him, as he's been increasingly more prone to snapping back at the endless criticism.

"There is no need to complain to the people (for the criticism)," Martino told MedioTiempo recently. "Against Poland, there will be 50,000 Mexicans cheering for the team, that is guaranteed. The question is if the team is up to the level of a World Cup and the rivals, and that we get through the games, that will change people's opinions."

Much of Mexico's fandom has given up on Martino, who has been criticized for just about everything throughout his tenure. He's changed the team too much, but also too little. He's relied too much on veterans, but also looked past Chicharito and Vela. He's won plenty, but losses to the U.S. men's national team in crucial games are all people care about.

If something goes wrong with El Tri in Qatar, we know where the blame will fall.

"What is Tata's fault for all this?" legendary Mexican star Jorge Campos said on ESPN recently. "Everything goes against him and he doesn't know what to say or comment, because there are no high-level players."

Martino's status in Mexico serves as a reminder that there may be no job more cutthroat in football than that of El Tri's head coach.

Fans outside of North America may be surprised by that statement, but this year's World Cup is just another indication of the weight that comes with being a part of Mexico's national team program. And that weight is coming down around Martino in Qatar as injuries, doubts and overall chaos threaten to overshadow yet another World Cup.

For years, Mexico has had an obsession with reaching the fifth game of a World Cup and, in each of the last four, they've fallen short. They've reached the fourth game, the Round of 16, each time, but that hasn't been enough for a football-crazy country. That is despite many other of the game's elite failing to do the same at one point or another during that time period.

That fifth game, the quarterfinals, is reserved for the best eight teams in the world, barring an upset or two. Yet, despite Mexico's expectations, there are few that would say Mexico is among the top eight national teams in the world. That fifth game is an expectation, anything less is a failure, even if reaching that spot would be against the odds.

That hope and expectation remains this time around, but Mexico arrive in Qatar fresh off a friendly defeat to Sweden that set off even more alarm bells around a team that is looking increasingly likely to fall short as that chaos cloud surrounds them.

Mexico may be desperate to reach that fifth game, and Martino will likely be desperate to prove his critics wrong by being the man to do so. But it's a task that is looking more difficult by the day, not only due to their internal struggles but also due to the circumstances laid in front of them.

El Tri are stuck in a tough group featuring Argentina, Poland and Saudi Arabia, with Lionel Messi and co the favorites to top the foursome. Mexico and Poland look likely to battle for that second spot, with Saudi Arabia certainly capable of causing problems for both.

At full strength, Mexico would like their chances against Poland, even with the presence of Robert Lewandowski in the opposition, but they aren't at full strength. Lewandowski is a perfect example of how important a talismanic striker is in the international game, and Mexico's enters this World Cup hobbled.

Jimenez has been dealing with a groin injury since September and was limited in the Sweden friendly to aid his recovery. The Wolves star is seemingly nowhere near fully fit, which would be somewhat okay if not for the absence of Corona on the wing, leaving El Tri without two primary starters in the attack.

And that brings us back to Campos' point: a lack of high-level players. It is somewhat unfair, given the status of players like Jimenez, Chucky Lozano and Edson Alvarez, as well as veterans like Andres Guardado, Hector Herrera and Guillermo Ochoa. But this isn't Mexico's best World Cup team, and that can't be blamed on Martino.

That, rather, is a symptom of a concerning trend in Mexican soccer, one that sees Mexican players priced out of moves to Europe. They're more valuable to Liga MX teams than they are to European teams, leaving domestic sides unwilling to sell players that could be the next Chicharito, Jimenez or Lozano for anything less than a premium.

"Players don't leave because teams won't let them, they don't leave because their wages are exorbitant," Martino said while calling the football ecosystem in Mexico "peculiar". "It's a shame we don't seek to fix things from this other side and that everything is on the manager or the players. That's not the debate that Mexico needs to improve in a football sense."

But, when and if it all goes wrong for Mexico, it will be Martino's fault. It will be because of his roster selection or his tactics or his demeanor or his personality. He'll "pay" for it with his job once this World Cup is over, with his marching orders likely coming as a big relief as he looks ahead to his next challenge. Mexico will then try to find a new manager to take them to where they feel they belong.

The loveless marriage is near its end. The only question left is just whether or not all involved can stick it out long enough to have it end on something resembling a positive note.