Can Mexico win a World Cup?
It's a fun question to chat about with friends at the bar or after kicking the ball around, but the past week has seen two of the most reputable coaches in Mexico take up the debate.
That's fine. Maybe it's fun for them to talk about as well. But what purpose does it serve now, in January of 2017, with just two matches of CONCACAF qualifiers behind us?
Both managers involved, Mexico national team coach Juan Carlos Osorio and Chivas coach Matias Almeyda, have come to Mexico and liked what they've seen from their players.
"The Mexican player is as good and as professional as any other on the planet," Osorio said earlier this month. Almeyda took it a step farther last week, saying that he's enjoyed working with Mexican players at Chivas and that the national team could win the World Cup under the right direction.
"I would say that realistically I’d go to the World Cup to play in it and win it, not to introduce myself. Mexico has a team that can go to the World Cup and win it, to win the World Cup. How many of you believe that?" he asked reporters at a news conference. "It's possible, but," a journalist said before Almeyda interrupted. "That's the mistake," the Chivas coach said. "It's possible. It has to be possible. Our players' mentality has to change."
Osorio, the man who is currently in charge of making that happen, apparently was blissfully unaware of the comments until doing an interview earlier this week.
"I have a lot of respect for Profe Almeyda. Second, I didn’t know that he said that. I think it’s public knowledge that I don’t see many opinion programs and I don’t read much, but I do watch a lot of games," Osorio told ESPN while in Panama scouting the Copa Centroamericana. "I know his team and I watch all Chivas’ games. I admire his great work. Now, about his opinion, I think it’s a valiant opinion. I admire it. I have my own opinion, and I don’t think it’s pertinent."
Of course, his opinion is the most pertinent. While many outlets in the Mexican press interpreted Osorio's comments as saying Mexico can't win the tournament, what he actually said was far more pragmatic.
"I think Mexico has a group of 15 players at a really good level, that are very close to the 15 best of other countries at a higher level. But we’ve been getting closer," he said after being asked to clarify. "Apart from that, we’ve got really young players who we’ve been bringing into the group.
"Mexico is a tough country to do this in because of the number of foreign players who play in the league. But by the method of them playing in their clubs, going abroad and in the national team we’ll help them in this process of getting stronger, we’re going to add between 15 and 20 and with 20, yes, we could be able to compete at a higher level."
In many ways, both men are aligning themselves in a smart way. Osorio is saying you must have patience, respect a process, start with younger players and develop them to have a national team. He's making the case that he and his staff should have as much time as possible. Almeyda is getting some serious PR points with supporters at Chivas, a club that refuses to field foreign players, and is immediately putting himself in the discussion for the next El Tri boss should Osorio be let go.
There are also points where they're in agreement. Each are frustrated with just how many foreign players get minutes and playing time over Mexican players in Liga MX and wish teams would give their homegrown players more opportunities to shine in the first division. The South American men would be stronger working together to help the league find a way to encourage teams to implement initiatives to help the young player than engaging in a debate that is hardly productive.
So with the admission that it's a frivolous debate...can Mexico win the World Cup? Of course it could. Any team with the talent and soccer history of Mexico could if things fell right. First, though, El Tri need to be focused on getting to a fifth game. To win a tournament, you have to get past the round of 16, something Mexico has not done since 1986. Almeyda's confidence has served him well as Chivas manager, but it's unlikely that this same group of Mexico players would go marauding through the knockout stage, following up their first win in the stage since 1986 with three more.
Osorio is right. It's not fun or sexy, but World Cups aren't won overnight. Germany's 2014 title started years before Philipp Lahm lifted the trophy. Chicharito, Hector Moreno, Andres Guardado (and Rafa Marquez before them) paved the way for younger players to play in Europe. Jesus Corona and Carlos Salcedo, the latter of whom left from Almeyda's Chivas, have followed in their footsteps.
While Almeyda's enthusiasm and belief is admirable, and Mexicans do need to have more self-belief in their soccer, the best leagues in the world are still found on the Old Continent. The young stars Osorio mentioned earlier this month who can move abroad, and those in the youth systems he'd like to see go as well, will have to go for Mexico to take the first step toward winning a World Cup.
For now, seeing Marquez lift the World Cup at Russia or Hernandez doing so in Qatar or Lozano doing so in (location to be named later) remains a dream. It's fun to talk about, but while the Chivas coach may not agree, Osorio's slow and steady growth is Mexico's best chance at changing the debate from "Can Mexico win the World Cup?" to "Can Mexico defend its World Cup title?"