Here Comes the Cavalry – Mexico and the Breaking of Psychological Barriers

In a time when Trump’s politics has reduced Mexican citizens to an inhumane narrative focused on removing them from USA; Mexico’s football is building their foundation of national pride.
Here Comes the Cavalry - Mexico and the Breaking of Psychological Barriers
Art by Onkar.

Mexico City is a place that takes your breath away, quite literally. The high altitude of the city and constant appearance of steep hills means that on my trip there I begun to wonder if, at 27 years, old age had crept up on me and my fitness had withered away. A sprawling city bursting to the seams with nine million people; the inequality of wealth is strikingly visual. Metropolitan apartments stand side by side with favelas of what can best be described as huts with barely a roof for cover. The segregation of the city is stark, but as with most countries around the world, there is one common link that unites all aspects of Mexican society: football.

When Hirving Lozano smashed the ball past Germany’s Manuel Neuer, it was reported that Mexico City suffered a small earthquake owing to the celebrations of fans. Mexico is no stranger to earthquakes in recent times, so scientifically it’s unlikely that fans caused the one on Sunday morning in Mexico City, yet it’s an apt analogy for what was a seismic result for ‘’El Tri’’, a possible defining moment, when the perennial underachievers arrived on the world stage.

Mexico as a nation has a population of around 127 million, and football is a lifestyle there. It’s  a country that breathes the sport, and when you factor in the Mexican population within neighbouring USA, which stands at over 35 million, that’s a remarkably large pool of footballing fans for the team. The side have qualified for every edition of the FIFA World Cup since 1994 and hosted the event in both 1970 and 1986, earning the national 87,000 capacity stadium, Estadio Azteca, the status of one of the world’s great stadiums.

I visited the stadium for a Liga MX game between Club America, the biggest side in Mexico, and Santos Laguna. The Azteca is a marvel to behold, a beautiful and magnificent structure made even more magical with the knowledge that this was the same pitch which saw Brazil score the greatest team goal of all time in the 1970 World Cup Final and, more depressingly for me, where Diego Maradona broke English hearts in 1986 with his ‘’Hand of God’’ goal. The Azteca is a fortress and visiting international teams fear the trip they make there –  the game I saw had 26,000 fans and was quite a scene – ; so one can only imagine what the sell-out 87,000 crowd who always attend for Mexican international games sounds like. Yet, unfortunately for Mexicans, the World Cup is taking place far away from the home comfort of the Azteca.

The legendary crater-like Azteca. Photo by Santokie Nagulendran.

The squad assembled for the 2018 World Cup has received little fanfare; other than Javier Hernandez and 39-year-old former Barcelona defender Rafa Marquez, there’s no real international household names, but together this year’s Mexico side seem determined to get past the round of 16, where they have fallen in every World Cup they have played since 1986.

The unpredictable nature of the side is encapsulated by Marquez, who has announced he will retire from football after the tournament ends, bringing to an end a colourful career which has seen the defender blacklisted by the US Government for allegedly helping  launder money for drug cartels. This bizarre case has meant that Marquez cannot be seen with any of the team sponsors, so no interviews, no drinking from bottles with sponsor logos – and he couldn’t even catch the same US-chartered flight to Russia with his team-mates.

Marquez, regarded as one of Mexico’s greatest-ever players, is an example of how the narrative of Mexico is somehow always blighted by the drug trade.

The list of eliminations in recent times do not make pleasant reading: 2002 was particularly brutal, a 2-0 loss to rivals USA; 2006 witnessed a sublime strike from Argentine player Maxi Rodriguez make the difference in extra time; while 2014 saw a stoppage time winner scored by Netherlands knock out El Tri. All bitter blows, all adding to the psychological pressures placed on the 2018 class.

Colombian tactician Juan Carlos Osorio was a gamble when Mexico appointed him as coach; a foreign choice. He has coached top clubs in South America such as Atletico Nacional and Sao Paolo, but managing the Mexican National team is to tame a different beast altogether. Former Mexican players and the media came out to denounce his appointment; there were better coaches in Mexico they said, if he was that good why wasn’t he coaching Colombia? Hugo Sanchez, a former player and manager,  asked.

Yet, to question the credibility of Osorio would be a naive observation to make; this is a man who breathes football. Having moved to Liverpool in 1997 to study a degree, he made sure he stayed in a house overlooking Liverpool’s Melwood base, and meticulously took notes every morning on how Gerard Houiller conducted sessions. Osorio is a fan of rotating the squad and credits Sir Alex Ferguson as the inspiration behind that aspect of his coaching style; ironic considering he worked as Manchester City’s assistant coach from 2001-2005.

Photo by PA.

The lack of Mexican identity in the coach has meant he has little support in the country, despite winning over two thirds of the games he’s taken charge of. The 7-0 battering by Chile in the quarterfinal of the 100th anniversary edition of the Copa America in 2015 still defines his reign, whilst losing in the semifinals of the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup to Jamaica didn’t help – something unheard of in the regional competition which Mexico routinely dominate at a canter. A 0-0 draw with Wales just before the World Cup did little to boost public morale as the team took stage in Russia, even as a story circulating about players partying with escorts on the eve of the World Cup gave the impression that this was a wild side not focused on sporting glory.

When Osorio was appointed in 2015, it came not long after previous permanent coach Miguel Herrera had been fired for attacking a journalist at an airport; the pressure of the job getting to him. ‘’There is no country in the world that keeps so much pressure on a national team coach. There is none.” Osorio would tell the press recently, and a rejection of a contract extension in March is confirmation the job has become overbearing; this World Cup is his last hurrah for El Tri.

To understand why there is so much pressure on the Mexican head coach, we need to look at the social climate of Mexico. This is a place where drug cartels run rampant, murder rates are sky high, and poverty is alarmingly common. Football is often compared to religion, and in Mexico, where Catholicism reigns supreme, football has a similar effect; it is escapism, a concept that draws faith and takes people away from the harsh surroundings of their environment for a brief moment in time.

Osorio has made no secret of his desire to coach the US National team in the future, which would be fitting considering how Mexico and USA intertwine on a cultural and footballing level.

The highest TV ratings in US are always for Liga MX, Mexico’s premier domestic league, while the Mexican national team frequently plays friendlies in the US, selling out to large crowds of the Mexican diaspora in the states.ven USA legend Landon Donovan was seen controversially backing Mexico, with the justification that  there is no USA to support at the World Cup this year.

Estadio Olimpico Universitario, Puma’s home stadum, Mexico City. Photo by Santokie Nagulendran.

In a time when Trump’s politics has reduced Mexican citizens to an inhumane narrative focused on removing them from USA; in a time when the American economy reigns supreme, it is football, yes football, which is the one thing which Mexicans feel they can proudly boast about; it is the foundation of national pride in the country and that is why the performance of El Tri matters so much to people. That pride will only further increase when Mexico joint hosts the 2026 World Cup with America and Canada; as far away as it seems, that tournament will be monumental for the country.

When I travelled to Mexico in 2016, it was refreshing to see that the Premier League or La Liga were not the most popular leagues in the country; people mainly wore the colours of Club America, Cruz Azul and Pumas with pride. This was their football, their culture and took priority over anything else, and that’s why the World Cup means so much to people; it is a barometer for how their culture matches up on a global stage.

Even the most optimistic fan, however, would be happy settling for second place in a group that contains reigning champions Germany, dominant and efficient. But ‘’El Tri’’ approached the game as if they had nothing to lose, there was a freedom in their ferocious counter-attacks, a joy to their game; they took Germany’s reputation and discarded it. The Germans couldn’t compete, and but for wasteful finishing, Mexico could have won by 3 or 4 goals.

Javier Hernandez’s tears after the game showed just what it meant to players; this was a shining light, that possibly, maybe, the hurdle of the last 16 can at last be toppled this year. This is a new Mexico; rather than being restricted by fear, they are playing without it. They also a ‘’mental coach’’ in Spanish native Imanol Ibarrando to get the players psychologically right during the tournament. Hired in 2016 in the wake of team’s 7-0 loss to Chile, Ibarrando has been working on restoring the team’s confidence and getting them to work more as a collective; based on their win against Germany, it looks like his work has been priceless.

The sour note from the game was the mass chanting of the homophobic term ‘’Puto’’, slang for a male sex worker, which meant the Mexican Federation was fined by FIFA after the game. Often the term will be chanted at opposition players, but also commonly by players on the home team who are underperforming. It is similar to the anti-semitic ‘’Yid’’ chant used by some Tottenham Hotspur fans, it is a chant has been ingrained into fan culture without any regard for the actual meaning of the word. When I attended a club game in Mexico City, ‘’Puto’ was chanted by men, women and children, so erasing it from stadiums will be a long-term task for officials to work on. Such is the problems caused by the chant, that Javier Hernandez publicly came out to denounce the use of the term, ‘’to all Mexican fans in the stadium, don’t shout Puto, let’s not risk another sanction’’ he would say, although that statement could be seen as suggesting that his desire to discard the term is purely because of fear of repercussions from FIFA rather than for any moral reasons.

But in the short-term the Mexicans can look forward to the rest of their group. Sweden and South Korea looked distinctly average in their first game and El Tri have a real chance of topping the group and possibly facing Brazil in the last 16. The odds will be stacked against them,  but you try telling that to the players; impossible is nothing. The mental shackles of yesteryear can be broken, and that is something the whole nation will rejoice in before breathing a collective sigh of relief.

Photo by PA.
Santokie Nagulendran

Writes about football across the globe, which provides a therapeutic release from the emotional turmoil of supporting Tottenham Hotspur