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Mexico national team higher-ups' 'second-level' comments should cause no scandal

8:34 PM EDT 8/22/19
Tata Martino Mexico Gold Cup
The El Tri manager says his team isn't yet among the elite, a statement that will be true until real change takes place in the structure

It's the kind of statement that, were it uttered by one of the pundits on Mexico's popular late-night chat shows, the other people around the table wouldn't even bother shouting it down. Yet, those very same people are set for another go round of debate on whether or not it's outrageous that the Mexico national team manager said – with the federation president now in agreement – that Mexico isn't a top-class national team.

There should be no scandal there. El Tri absolutely are the class of Concacaf. They proved it by winning the Gold Cup even with a weakened squad. They proved it by advancing further than any other team in the region in the 2018 World Cup.

Then they proved how limited they are, failing once again to get to the quarterfinals of a World Cup taking place outside Mexico. The reality was clear after Juan Carlos Osorio's squad lost to Brazil: Mexico isn't the kind of team that gets played off the park when it takes on the world's best, but it still isn't in the category of world's best.

"Mexico today is one of the stand-out national teams on the second level, but the first level is occupied by national teams that traditionally have been important since 100 years ago, so it's not easy to get to that level," Mexico boss Tata Martino said last week at a news conference in San Antonio.

"The only national team that I've seen step up to that level is Spain. It was always Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy. I wouldn't even put a national team like England in there. We can probably put France in there now.

"It's a long journey to get there, and it obviously isn't easy, but we're on the same mission Osorio was on when he was in charge of the national team."

This is a coach who is accurately appraising the situation in which he finds himself and now will work to change it. It's what Martino has known, really. He's had to elevate teams from spots just outside the elite in the past. It resulted in four league titles in Paraguay and one of the best-ever finishes for the Paraguay national team at a World Cup.

Martino knows what he's doing, and having coached at Barcelona and his native Argentina's national team, he's been with the elite. That's why his assessment should be taken on in good faith. Not that everyone is ready to do so.

“I’m saying Mexico already beat world powers at World Cups and in four years the national team can do something really important for Mexico," former national team assistant coach Mario Carrillo said during a TV appearance. "I don’t like rating it as a second-level national team.”

Fortunately, it appears the coach's bosses have the right perspective on the matter, with FMF President Yon de Luisa supporting Martino on Wednesday.

"You've got to understand the words and the context in which he said them. Not only do I share them, but I support them. It's an analysis that puts us to work. We want to be fighting with the biggest national teams. The fact that we beat Germany is an extraordinary achievement," De Luisa said at a news conference announcing Guadalajara as the site of Olympic qualification.

"The idea is how we're able to do it in a consistent way, at the time that we have this level of consistency, we can say we're in the first group.

"There's been a huge effort made on the industry level, not only with the national team but also in the clubs to be in the upper echelon of this second group. You have to understand that there are 211 member nations and we're in the top 16."

It's a totally fair point from the president to note that Mexico is indeed in a strong stratosphere. Unlike other Concacaf rivals, Mexico clearly is ensconced in the top 20 teams in the world. To get to the next level and regularly beat teams like those mentioned by Martino – Brazil, Argentina, Germany, France – Mexico needs to admit it's not at that level yet. Too many seem to want to bury their heads in the sand and say there are no problems with Mexican soccer, or pin the problems on things like foreign players in the league or national team players not putting in enough effort.

The issues are more complex, and require a unified front from those in charge. That's been next to impossible to achieve in Mexico, but Martino may have the gravitas and the deft touch necessary to convince his bosses to all pull in the same direction.

Like a libel lawsuit, the biggest defense he can have for his comments is simple. They're true.

If the truth is uncomfortable for fans or some members of the press to deal with, they're best served not shooting the messenger, but listening closely to what he has to say.