11 October 2013

Flattering to deceive: Mexico's history of unfulfilled potential

Friday’s CONCACAF qualifying matches will go a long way to clarifying who will represent the region in 2014 in Brazil. The United States and Costa Rica are already in, while a victory for Honduras would see it grab a spot in the intercontinental playoffs at worst. But by far the most fascinating match of the day is the Mexico-Panama match at the Estadio Azteca. If Panama defeats Mexico—once unthinkable—two things will happen: the canaleros will effectively sew up the playoff spot, moving Panama closer than it ever has been to a berth in the World Cup finals (it is one of only five Latin American nations—the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Venezuela being the others—that have never played in the World Cup); and it would mean that el Tri would likely miss the World Cup for only the fifth time in its history—and the first time since 1990, when the cachirules scandal (discussed below) saw all Mexican teams banned from international play.*
That Mexico might miss the World Cup with its present team seemed unthinkable at the start of qualification. With players like Chicharito and Giovani dos Santos, Andrés Guardado, Pablo Barrera**, and Carlos Salcido—who ended 2011 with a scintillating come from behind win in the Gold Cup—combining with the 2012 Olympic gold medal squad, Mexico should have been battling with the United States for the top spot in the hexagonal rather than fighting for its life.  But somewhere along the way the Mexican squad (and its former coach José Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre) lost the script, and the promise held by the team dissipated. The once impregnable Estadio Azteca, where El Tri had lost only once in qualifying between 1961 and 2013 now seems like just another stadium: Mexico has not won a game at home in the hexagonal, tying three times and losing to Honduras.
The fact is that Mexico, long dominant on the regional scale, has rarely translated that success onto the global stage. Mexico’s soccer promise, we might say, often goes unfulfilled. The same might be said of the country: from the Mexican Revolution to the discovery and nationalization of vast oil reserves the Mexican people have been promised much, yet poverty and inequality remain the norm. Indeed, according to Manuel Seyde, Mexico’s few triumphs and “more common disappointments” result in the country and its soccer being “gripped by insecurities.” Its fate, both in sports and otherwise, is to be “a giant in its region and a shadow in the rest of the planet." (1)

Regional Promises, Globally Broken
The Mexican national team disembarked in Montevideo on a chilly winter day in July 1930. The weather did not improve for the first game Mexico played in the inaugural World Cup. If the national team blamed the weather for its 4-1 loss to France, it could not do the same for its next two games: a 3-0 loss to Chile and a 6-3 defeat at the hands of eventual runner-up Argentina. Called “primitive” by the Argentine press, Mexico finished last in the tournament and allowed the most goals. This certainly was an inauspicious start to the Mexico’s World Cup history. In truth, the federation should not have been surprised by the outcome. The Mexican team had practiced little before departing for Uruguay, and arrived in Montevideo after a 26-day voyage only two days before its first game.
            This was not Mexico’s first foray into international soccer. In fact, while national leagues helped bring the country together after the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), across the 1920s international play served to bring the nation together as well. In 1922 a Mexican team, primarily made up of the amateur team América, traveled to Guatemala for a three game series, defeating their hosts in two games and tying one. (2) A year later, Mexico again defeated the guatemaltecos, this time at home. These successes created a surge in popularity for the sport. Tours by foreign teams to Mexico, which began in the late 1920s, also led to greater interest in the game, as Mexicans turned out in droves to see how their teams would fare against those from Spain, Chile, and Uruguay. Generally, Mexican teams lost. And while the Tricolor had success in regional championships such as the Central American championships, in international play outside the region, Mexico lost too. The squad that represented Mexico in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, for example, lost both of its matches: 7-1 to Spain and 3-1 to Chile. And though el Tri met success in qualifier matches for the 1934 Cup—defeating Cuba three times—it failed to qualify for the finals, traveling to Rome to lose a play-in game against the United States. Indeed, the Tricolor rarely represented itself well in international tournaments. Between 1930 and 1958, Mexico participated in four of six World Cups, managing only one tie. In 1962 Mexico finally earned its first victory in the World Cup, but that hardly changed its fortunes. El Tri failed to win a game in 1966, and did not qualify for the 1974 or 1982 championships. Nevertheless, notwithstanding Mexico’s poor showings, international play helped to popularize soccer and forge a sense of identity. Indeed, with the exception of nationalizing oil in 1938, soccer was perhaps the most important symbol around which all Mexicans could unite. And eventually the outcomes of Mexico’s matches improved.

Mexico, 1970 
             The World Cup of 1970 offered an opportunity for unity in Mexico, especially after the 1968 Olympic Games. In soccer terms, perhaps, this opportunity was lost. It is often, though not always, the case that host nations advance farther in the World Cup than they might otherwise. Until South Africa’s crash in 2010, no home team had failed to make it out of the first round. Sweden, for instance, lost the 1958 finals against Brazil. Four years later, Chile, which likely would not have qualified for the championship were it not the host, finished in third place. England too, a perennial quarterfinalist, won the trophy at home in 1966, but has only reached the semifinals one other time. So hosting the Cup and finishing sixth, as Mexico did in 1970, should be seen as a lost opportunity. But in placing Mexico on the world stage, hosting the Cup promised—and in part delivered—much.
            The Mexico team that contested the World Cup in 1970 hoped for better. A strong side, the team raised expectations with a slate of games in early in the year. From February until April Mexico played twelve matches, winning five, drawing five, and losing only two. With one exception, all of the matches were against teams that had qualified for the World Cup. And Mexico started the tournament well, if uninspired, with a goalless draw against the Soviet Union. From there, things began to look up. The Tricolor followed this match with two victories, over El Salvador and Belgium, to qualify for the knockout phase of the tournament for the first time. It was no small achievement. The team advanced with a certain amount of panache, scoring five goals and allowing none. And the quarterfinal match against Italy, played in Toluca, got off to a flying start for the Mexican team, as the Tricolor took the lead in the twelfth minute. Footage of the game shows the team celebrating the goal along with delirious fans. The joy would be short-lived. In the twenty-fifth minute, Italy scored, deflating the stadium’s energy. In the second half Italy scored three more, ending Mexico’s World Cup dreams.
            But the hopes born from the 1970 World Cup related to more than soccer. Rather, as it had with the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, the Mexican government had hoped to use a world sporting event to project the image of a developed and modern Mexico. Both events highlighted Mexico’s ability to plan a worldwide event and, to paraphrase historian Eric Zolov, temporarily replaced the myth that Mexico was a land of mañana—where nothing got done—with the notion that it was the land of tomorrow, where anything was possible. All of the advance planning for 1968, however, came to naught. The Mexico City Olympics are remembered not for the transformation of the capital city into a gleaming, friendly, modern metropolis, but for the massacre of student protesters in the Tlatelolco square and the black power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos. (3) By contrast, though the Mexican soccer team failed to make it past the quarterfinals in 1970, Mexico scored high marks for hosting one of the most memorable World Cups. Indeed, for Mexican commentators, the Cup suggested the country’s potential to enter the ranks of developed nations. It represented, in other words, a promise for the future.

1986 and 1990           
            Within years, however, that promise evaporated in the midst of the boom and bust cycle of the Mexican economy. Economic growth in the decade was offset by rampant inflation and the oils crisis. Discovery of new oil reserves in the 1970s led to higher government borrowing, and when the price of oil plummeted, the Mexican economy collapsed. Yet, in the midst of the “lost decade”, as the economic crisis of the 1980s is known, Mexico hosted another mega event. The World Cup in 1986 was supposed to be held in Colombia, but missed construction deadlines and a simmering civil conflict caused the country to renege on its organizing responsibilities. FIFA reopened bidding for the right to host, and Mexico beat out bids from the United States and Canada. In so doing, Mexico became the first country to host the cup for the second time, causing a surge in nationalist pride and raising spirits in the midst of financial gloom. Moreover, the Mexican government invested millions of dollars to present the country as modern and developed once again.
            In the year before the tournament, Mexico’s soccer star shone brightly even as its economy teetered. Throughout 1985 the team appeared nearly invincible, losing only four of twenty-two games. Mexican hopes for a strong showing at the World Cup seemed attainable; a good showing in soccer would doubtless buoy the national sentiment. And then, disaster struck. On the morning of September 19, 1985, eight months before the World Cup was to begin, an 8.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the west coast. Between 10,000-40,000 people died and thousands of buildings were damaged in Mexico City alone. But none of the twelve existing stadiums had been damaged by the quake and all of the new structures built for the event had also escaped damage. Nevertheless, Mexico found itself having to run a World Cup in the midst of a massive reconstruction effort, just as Chile had done twenty-four years earlier. Strong aftershocks, over 7 on the Richter scale, could still be felt one month before the tournament began.

            The 1986 World Cup is remembered mainly for the audacity of Diego Maradona. In the quarterfinal match against England he scored two goals: the infamous “hand of God” goal and also his stunning run through the entire British defense to score what many say is the greatest goal of all time. But there are other stories from that Cup: Mexico’s disallowed goal in the quarterfinal against Germany; Manuel Negrete’s beautiful goal, which would have been the best of the tournament had it not been for Maradona. Here is another. The Mexican team took the field for its first game in the 1986 World Cup at the Estadio Azteca in front of over 100,000 fans. As Hugo Sánchez, Tomás Boy, Manuel Negrete, and the rest of the Tricolor stood waiting for the national anthem to start, the sound system failed. Instead, the majority of the fans serenaded the national team.
            As a result of its excellent outcomes in the lead up to the World Cup, expectations for the Mexican team were high. Hugo Sánchez, then a 28-year old phenomenon, had just won his second consecutive Spanish league scoring title (pichichi) with Real Madrid, and he led a formidable team. And they performed well. Belgium posed no threat, with Mexico taking a 2-0 lead and holding on to win 2-1. A rough game against Paraguay ended in a 1-1 draw, and Mexico navigated around a weak Iraq, 1-0. For only the second time, Mexico was through to the knock out stages. There, el Tri would meet Bulgaria, waltzing to a 2-0 win. In the quarterfinals, a hard fought match against eventual runner-up West Germany showed Mexico’s grit and determination. The game ended in a 0-0 draw—with a goal by Mexico controversially disallowed—with Germany winning on penalty kicks. Once again, Mexico’s soccer promises had gone unfulfilled.
            Yet the future appeared to bode well. They could not fail to build off the experience and improve their performances by the time that Italy hosted the next Cup in 1990. Indeed the 1990 competition was supposed to be a coming out party for Mexico: Sánchez would be 32, hardly an old man, while Negrete would just be 31. More, younger players like Carlos Hermosillo and Alberto García Aspe would be ready to take over. And the team wanted to prove that 1986 had been no fluke. The promise of the generation, of Mexican soccer finally arriving as a force to be reckoned with, awaited fulfillment. It was not to be, due to the machinations of the Mexican Fútbol Federation.
The cachirules scandal is one of the biggest to ever hit a national team involving not so much players as the highest heights of Mexican soccer. In 1988, during the qualification process for the 1989 Under-20 World Championship in Saudi Arabia, the Mexican newspaper Ovaciones published an article accusing the youth team of using over aged players. At first, Mexican soccer officials denied the charges. But the Mexican press continued to run stories about the case, and was only too happy to oblige when federation president Rafael del Castillo demanded to see proof. The journalists disclosed that the FMF’s own age registry showed that at least four of the players were too old to play. Two players exceeded the limit by two years, one by three years, and the fourth was seven years older than he claimed. The scandal grew. Other national soccer federations demanded that CONCACAF take decisive steps to punish Mexico. CONCACAF’s disciplinary panel decided to ban the Mexican team from the Saudi tournament and imposed lifetime bans on the FMF executive council members. (4)
            Hoping for a more favorable hearing in front of the FIFA disciplinary board, del Castillo appealed the ruling to Zurich. There, however, he received a harsher rebuke. Instead of earning a reprieve for the Mexican youth team, FIFA banned all Mexican teams from FIFA tournaments for two years and upheld the ban on the FMF executive council. Mexico, with a stunningly talented squad, would miss the 1988 Olympics in Seoul—for which they had already qualified—and the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Both Mexican soccer fans and commentators around the world had expected the team to challenge for the cup. Hugo Sánchez, fresh off tying the Spanish record for goals in a season (38) for Real Madrid, would be back. Carlos Hermosillo, who had scored 24 goals the previous season in the Mexican leagues, was on the squad. With that tandem Mexico would have been difficult to stop, a fact that they proved in the year prior to the tournament. While el Tri had been banned from official tournaments, it could still play friendly matches. Prior to the World Cup, other teams sought games with the talented Mexican squad to warm up against quality opposition. Mexico played five teams headed to Italy: Argentina, the reigning world champion; Colombia; South Korea; the United States, and Uruguay. El tri won all five of these games. Another promise unfulfilled.

Et tu?
So where does this leave us going into the last matches of the hexagonal? I would suggest that it leaves fans of the tricolor in an all too familiar place: waiting for disappointment. For all the promise of the Tricolor, Mexican soccer fans are used to teams failing to reach their potential. The generation of Hugo Sánchez and Carlos Hermosillo was supposed to go farther than the quarterfinals and then lost its chance at redemption in 1990 due to an inept and corrupt bureaucracy. So too the 1994 edition of the squad (with Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Luis Hernández, and Jorge Campos) promised Mexican greatness. Indeed, this seems to be the narrative of Mexican soccer history and Mexico itself: destined for greatness that, sometimes through no fault of its own, remains just out of reach. And now the hopes of the so-called golden generation—with established players like Chicharito, dos Santos, Salcido, and Rafa Marquez and the newer additions such as Marco Fabian, Javier Aquino, Hiram Mier and Miguel Layún—hang by the slimmest of threads. At the start of qualification, many Mexicans believed that this team represented the best chance that el Tri had to finally bring home the World Cup and to show that Mexico could compete on the world stage. Now they have to wait to see: will this group of players salvage the campaign and qualify, or will it collapse under the pressure of expectation.
            Anthropologist Roger Magazine has suggested that Mexico lacks a “prominent national mythology” about the national soccer team. Mexicans, he argues, “closely scrutinize the performance of the national team” but do not use it as a measuring stick for the nation. (5) This may indeed be true. But perhaps this curiosity, the lack of investment in the team, comes from the expectation that the Tricolor will fall short of its goals. Just as the national mythology that glorifies the Revolution as an equalizing force has never fully delivered on its promises, so too the Tricolor flatter to deceive. In other words, like the nation itself, Mexican soccer offers perpetual promise and unfulfilled potential.

* If Mexico loses there is still a slight chance that it could qualify for the intercontinental playoff, but it would be highly unlikely. It would need to defeat Costa Rica in Costa Rica and overtake either Panama or Honduras (or both) on goal differential.   
** I admit to being a huge Pablo Barrera fan. Though he has not featured regularly in the national set-up since a knee injury in 2012, and is never the flashiest of players, he has a certain intangible quality and toughness that Mexico has lacked of late. Moreover, the team plays better when he is on the field. Since 2009 in games that matter (tournaments and qualifiers) with Barrera on the pitch: 14-1-2. In 2013 with Pablo: 1-0-1; without: 0-4-2.

1. Manuel Seyde, in Greco Sotelo, Crónicas del fútbol mexicano, volumen 3: El oficio de las canchas (1950-1970), (Mexico City: Editorial Clio, 1998), 14; and Ramón Márquez C., “Introducción,” in Carlos Calderón Cardoso, Crónicas del fútbol mexicano: Por amor de la camiseta, volumen 2 (1933-1950), (Mexico City: Editorial Clio, 1998), 10.
2. There is some debate about the tour. RSSSF, the statistical database for soccer, shows that the tour took place in early January 1923 and that Mexico lost one game 3-1. Galindo and Hernández, however, claim that the tour occurred in December 1922, and that Mexico won two games and tied one. See Galindo and Hernández, 49; and http://www.rsssf.com/tablesm/mex-intres.html. On the 1930 World Cup, see Galindo and Hernández, 65-66.
3. Eric Zolov, “Showcasing the ‘Land of Tomorrow’: Mexico and the 1968 Olympics,” The Americas 61:2 (October 2004), 163. See also Keith Brewster and Claire Brewster, “Cleaning the Cage: Mexico City’s Preparations for the Olympic Games,” The International Journal for the History of Sport 26:6 (April 2009), 790-813; and Kevin B. Witherspoon, Before the Eyes of the World: Mexico and the 1968 Olympic Games (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2008).
4. "Los Cachirules: Escándalos Deportivos,” Televisa Deportes, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=so1gW3LuClg, accessed December 20, 2011; Leon Krauze, Crónicas del fútbol mexicano (volumen 5): Moneda en el aire (1986-1998), (Mexico City: Editorial Clio, 1998), 28-29; “Caso ‘cachirules’: negro recuerdo,” El Universal (April 20, 2008), http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/deportes/99513.html, accessed December 20, 2011.
5. Roger Magazine, Golden and Blue Like My Heart: Masculinity, Youth, and Power Among Soccer Fans in Mexico City, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007), 17.

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